[Continuing the lockdown reviews on recommended movies that can be found on streaming services. Today, 2017’s Thoroughbreds, which has just arrived on Netflix.]
Synopsis: After a nasty animal-related incident, former best friends Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) reunite and rekindle their friendship over animal cruelty, blackmail, and a plot to murder Lily’s abusive stepfather. Y’know, typical teenage stuff.
1. Springing from the same teenagers-doing-bad-shit-in-a-black-comedy genealogy as Heathers and Brick, Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds is as auspicious a debut that has come around in a while. It exists in a perfect tonal sweet spot – off kilter enough for the violence to actually be funny, but with enough psychological realism to ground the story in meaning and emotional depth. With its bleak sense of humour and impeccable craftsmanship, Thoroughbreds is an icy shard of a movie, with a tip so finely honed that it cannot help but draw blood.
2. Much of the film’s success is down to Finley’s directorial style, which, to repeat a word used in the previous paragraph, is impeccable. There is more than a tinge of the Fincherian about this movie, from its cool remove to its incredibly precise sense of shot composition and editing. Just watch this scene for an example of Finley’s craft.
Simple, right? A conversation between the two leads that deepens characterisation and provides necessary exposition. You see this kind of scene all the time. But look at the details. How it starts with Lily standing shot from a low angle while Amanda is seated and shot at eye level, immediately conveying who has the power in this relationship. But things change. As Amanda leans back (a power move), the camera shifts to follow her as she takes charge of the conversation. An insert shot in tight close-up of the pencil being sharpened simultaneously communicates that this girl is dangerous and also that she is ‘peeling’ away the layers of her character. A slow zoom into Amanda’s face turns the medium shot into a close up that ups the impact of her big line. Then the switch in positions and camera angles. Amanda is now standing and shot from the low angle while Lily is seated at eye level. The power dynamics have completely shifted. But the scene ends on a subtler note than that, with Amanda starting to scheme with Lily on how to get more money from her mother, filmed with an over-the-shoulder shot which puts us into Lily’s headspace and also serves as the first shot that includes both characters in the frame instead of isolating them, thus showing an understanding has been formed between them. And I have not even gotten into the costuming or framing at all. (1) It’s ‘simple’ filmmaking, superbly done.
3. This is not to say that Finley cannot show off when he wants to, with some brilliant setpieces (including one centred around motion-controlled floodlights) and spectacularly fluid camera work that stalks and lurks around Lily’s opulent mansion. And yet, the best moment (and an instance of proper genius) is the film’s version of a climax, which is (no joke and no real spoiler) a single unbroken, unmoving shot of a character sitting in one place. No less of an authority than Martin Scorsese has described cinema as ‘a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out’, and the climax of Thoroughbreds is an excellent example of this, using the carefully set up story beats and excellent sound design to imply what is happening offscreen.
4. It also helps when a film has three gifted young actors in its central roles. Anya Taylor-Joy has, in a short amount of time, developed a ridiculously impressive resume, and Thoroughbreds slots nicely into that CV. Taylor-Joy has a knack for playing intensely damaged characters that hide beneath a veneer of calm, and she really knocks it out of the park with her portrayal of Lily, particularly in those moments when the mask of patrician polish slips and we see the depths of craven selfishness beneath. The late Anton Yelchin is also wonderful as a lowlife drug dealer who falls into the girls’ orbit, with a weaselly performance that practically reeks of desperation and nervousness. This was unfortunately his final performance, and it is sad to be reminded of how talented he was, being able to make a huge impression with a supporting role. Special note must also go out to Paul Sparks who makes Lily’s stepfather an absolutely loathsome figure with very little screentime. However, if this film belongs to one person, it is Olivia Cooke, whose robotic deadpan across the entire film ironically makes her the most likeable and human person in it. In a world of artifice and facade, Amanda’s blunt pragmatism is a whirlwind of fresh air, upheaving and overturning all pretension in its way.
5. To sum up, Thoroughbreds serves as an announcement for not one, but three up-and-coming young talents. Executed with precision and no shortage of artistry, Cory Finley proves with his debut that he has a keen mastery over the fundamentals of his craft, while his two leads continue to impress in their young careers. This is a film about performance, about the layers of pretense that we put on daily to hide our darker impulses within. It is a film that glides with serene confidence through the halls of the wealthy and unflinchingly tears down the airs that they put on. Yet it is also, at its heart, a film about two profoundly damaged young women and the tumultuous relationship they share, a relationship that is defined both by love and friendship, but also exploitation and violence. Thoroughbreds is a real winner, and well worth your time.
- Fine, I’ll do it quick. Amanda is in dark colours while Lily is in white. Yet, both characters have a streak of contrasting colour down the centre of their costumes, indicating that neither character is simply black or white, and further implies that there is a similarity between these seemingly different girls. Also, the background of Amanda’s shot is symmetrical while Lily’s is asymmetrical, another further hint as to who among the two is actually unhinged