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Corey Finley’s Thoroughbred is an espresso shot of the sort of the pitch-black comedy that Hollywood has become afraid to touch. It’s a successor to films like Heathers and The War of The Roses with a dash of Nicolas Winding Refn thrown in. It’s rare to describe a film that is rooted in horrific violence as “charming,” but here we are. Completely unapologetic about his off-kilter stylistic choices and gleefully willing to give his depraved characters center stage, Finley has created a near-masterpiece of murder-driven comedy.
The story follows Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), two estranged friends who reconnect when Amanda needs Lily to tutor her. However, they don’t remain focused on SAT reading passages for long as their serious issues come to life. Amanda is a complete sociopath. She’s incapable of feeling most basic emotions and is getting tired of faking it. Lily is constantly tormented by Mark (Paul Sparks), her abrasive step-father who has been making her miserable for years. Amanda picks up on this and propositions that she and Lily kill him. They become a pair of evil masterminds, orchestrating the murder in a way that could make neither of them culpable.
Finley’s direction is precise and stylistic without ever feeling indulgent. He infuses even the film’s funniest scenes with palpable tension. The sequences are as awkward and blunt as the characters who inhabit them. Line deliveries are often punctuated with long silences to let each one really sink in. Finley’s camera often lingers on these moments for a long time before cutting, particularly when a character is acclimating to a new setting. While that may sound laborious on paper, the screenplay is so dynamic and fast paced that it’s ok that the individual moments are taking their time. We really get to know these profoundly antisocial characters. Almost everything that comes out of their mouths is either hilarious or devastating and Finley brilliantly changes that dynamic on a dime.
Even with all of Thoroughbred’s style, the wrong actors could have easily sunk it. Happily, Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy were each born to play their roles. Cooke is a revelation as the emotionally barren Amanda. This isn’t a case where there’s a heart of gold lying beneath her tough exterior. She’s already too far gone when the film starts and as it goes along she only gets pulled deeper in. This woman is a force of nature, able to dismantle anybody who gets in her way due to her complete lack of empathy. Taylor-Joy takes full advantage of Lily’s repressed rage. Despite her affluence and high education, her relationship with her stepfather places her one step away from entering Cooke’s world of darkness. This push-pull leads to some fantastic stone-faced camaraderie as this dynamic duo plans their attack. The late Anton Yelchin is also a lot of fun as Tim, a burnout drug dealer who finds himself rolled into this scheme. It’s a sleazier character than we’ve seen him play before which stands as yet another testament to what a wonderfully dynamic talent he was. Paul Sparks is also a perfectly tailored version of a country club super villain who rounds things out by making sure that we’re completely behind the plan at hand.
Unfortunately, there are a couple of narrative missteps that keep this from being a perfect movie. The subplot that gives the movie its namesake is a little half-baked. It serves its purpose but is only partially meaningful in the grand scheme of the story. Also, the final moments commit the cardinal sin of staying around past their expiration date. There is an absolutely perfect moment for the movie to end but it keeps going for another five minutes to tie everything up into a neat little bow. It’s not a particularly strong sequence either and ultimately softens the impact a little.
Thoroughbred certainly isn’t for everybody. Some will certainly be turned off by the pacing of the dialogue along with the bleak subject matter. However, for those who want to fill in their laughs with gasps, it’s hard to imagine that there will be a better dark comedy in 2017. Cooke and Taylor-Joy continue to prove that they are here to stay while Finley establishes himself as a singular voice that will be worth following in the coming years. You might not be a murderer yourself, but while watching this film, you just may be rooting for one.