The bonds of friendship are tested and suffocating in writer/director Cory Finley’s debut Thoroughbreds. Me, Earl And the Dying Girl’s Olivia Cooke and The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy lead this dark comedy about teen girls that makes Heathers look like The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.
As children, Amanda (Cooke) and Lilly (Taylor-Joy) were inseparable best buds. Smiling together they rode their thoroughbred horses in competitions in their wealthy Connecticut community. Sobbing together they mourned when the latter lost her father. As years passed, a distance grew. And when the pair are reunited by Amanda’s pestering mom, an awkward reintroduction soon gives way into a deep bond, disturbing revelations, and a plot to murder Lilly’s douchebag stepdad Mark (House of Cards’ Paul Sparks).
There’s a tension at their reunion. Lilly initially regards Amanda as something alien and wild. We’ll later learn that she’s committed a violent crime that’s ostracized her from most of this affluent suburb’s polite society, yet fascinates Lilly. Early on, Amanda confesses with a shrug that she doesn’t really have feelings. A look of alarm flashes in Lilly’s eyes. But Amanda’s lack of emotions allows her to consider solutions that others would shriek are too taboo to ever utter. A conversation about if they should murder Mark quickly evolves into a conversation of how. In one of his final film roles, Anton Yelchin plays a dirtbag drug dealer who’s folded into their scheme. While he’s convincingly sketchy and volatile, this movie is all about Cooke and Taylor-Joy’s electrifying and unnerving chemistry.
These are not giggly girls or goth girls or any kind of girl so easily defined. Amanda and Lilly are young women of outlandish privilege, who feel comfortable plotting a murder, not only because of their slippery morals and confidence in their own intelligence, but also because they are rich white girls whose parents routinely pay their way out of trouble. The rules are just different for girls like these. And as they grow to realize this dark, ugly truth, they grow dangerous.
With pristinely shiny long hair, chic outfits, and ever-pursed mouth, Taylor-Joy looks like a teen dream, every parent’s wish. But churning behind her bright eyes are dark machinations. With a pretty face and an enigmatic expression, this ingenue spins from lovely to unsettling. Just like that, she becomes the angel-faced killer tabloids go mad for. And she is divine. Yet Cooke manages an even meaner feat.
Amanda is outwardly ambivalent about everything, from her mother paying off an old friend to play with her to the recounting of how she gruesomely murdered her beloved horse, Honeymooner. (For the squeamish, this is only discussed and never shown.) It’s a role that could have easily fallen flat or feel one-note. But Cooke doesn’t confuse apathy for boredom, and keeps a curiosity sparking in Amanda that urges audiences to like her in spite of ourselves. As these lethal teens barrel toward their big bad moment, Finley’s script delivers a black bitter humor that makes “chemo-therapy” a shocking but solid punchline, and turns its resolution into a beautiful but bittersweet ode to old—but maybe not good—friends.