Finley’s thriller ‘Thoroughbreds’ makes murderous, privileged characters strangely relatable

Claire Folger / Focus Features/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

“Fiction’s about what it is to be a fucking human being,” David Foster Wallace once said.

We read books and watch films not just to understand ourselves, but also because there can be something so entertaining and satisfying about watching ourselves, even in the smallest glimpse, on a large screen, and about reading a line in a novel that deeply resonates with our own thought process.

Therefore, it’s a cardinal rule for writers to populate their novels, films or plays with characters we can relate to.

With his debut film “Thoroughbreds,” playwright and bludgeoning director/filmmaker Cory Finley does everything he can to deceive us into thinking he’s breaking that rule. And it’s that deception that ultimately makes ‘Thoroughbreds” a film we can devour as equal parts entertaining and thoughtfully engaging.

Finley’s two-hander examines the morality of the decisions we make. It questions how much of that process is and isn’t — should and shouldn’t be — driven by our emotions. All the while, this philosophical conversation is driven by two privileged teenage girls, Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), who plot to murder the latter’s self-obsessed and controlling stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks).

“Thoroughbreds” manages to entice us through the central pair, even when they seem utterly unrelatable — even when they contradict every rule as to why we should be interested in and sympathize with a character.

By the time Amanda pulls up to the driveway of Lily’s comfortably furnished yet uncozy Connecticut mansion in a waxed luxury SUV, the question can quickly become why we should bother to sympathize with whatever turmoil they’re about to experience in the next hour and a half. On top of their polished lifestyles, one of them is a questionably misanthropic, unfeeling individual — or is she? — while the other wants to commit murder.

Here, viewers might find their understandable reserve for the film. Lily, Amanda and drug-dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin) all risk becoming oversimplified and polished characters born out of a checklist of human characteristics — with “unempathetic” checked for Amanda, “emotional” checked for Lily and “poor and vulnerable” checked for Tim. Each character, however, is masterfully designed to contrast and foil each other.

There’s a laudable balancing act Finley and editor Louise Ford try to maintain. ‘Thoroughbreds” keeps a steady pace throughout. We spend just enough time with Amanda and Lily on their own to get a sense of who these people are, where they go and how they fill their days. They don’t do much, really — Lily watches movies and goes to parties, while Amanda satisfies herself by staring at a bush. The contrast between each player is undeniably clear in order to undergo an intense study of morality.

When these seemingly simple characters are brought into the same room, the environment instantly becomes less static and more interesting. More importantly, Amanda and Lily’s mental landscape become less flat than we might have thought.

Erik Friedlander’s atonal score helps reveal that these characters are more complicated than may be suspected. Against the orderly and pristine environment shared by Lily and Amanda, we hear the primal and ritualistic rhythms of a singular frame drum. Even as we stare at Lily’s posh home and wardrobe or at her calm physiognomy, the gradually intense and jarring drums force us to question the beauty on the surface.

Because of cinematographer Lyle Vincent, ‘Thoroughbreds” is also a visual delight, featuring clean compositions that complement the exponentially close relationship between Lily and Amanda — and Ford edits and cuts the film in order to dance to the cadence of Amanda and Lily’s sharp dialogue.

At the end, “Thoroughbreds” asks a lot of questions. To leave them unanswered is a borderline cop-out. Yet it’s leaving the questions ambiguous that makes the film poignant — pointing out just how complicated it can be to decide between what is right and wrong or to decide if emotions are the crux of humanity.

Contact Lloyd Lee at [email protected].