Anton Yelchin’s tragic death last year was above all else a human tragedy, the loss of a young man far too early in his life. But it also marked the passing of a tremendously talented actor who, at age 27, was only growing as an artist. Further evidence of that arrived at Sundance on Saturday with the premiere of Thoroughbred, the feature debut of writer-director Cory Finley that has become an early standout of the festival. The story of two young women, one incapable of experiencing emotion and one whose uptight Connecticut environment won’t let her do so honestly, Thoroughbred features standout performances from two of the more promising young actors around, Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke. But in addition to those two leads, Yelchin is terrific as Tim, the film’s comic relief and counterpoint to its tandem of powerful women; he inhabits the role as very few other actors could.
Tim is a symptom of the movie’s upper-class environment: a dropout, drug dealer, and statutory rapist, his hair wild and his behavior erratic, he claims to be pushing back against the staid expectations and behavior of those around him, even if he mostly just seems like a mess. While the role is very well-written, it could’ve been, in the hands of lesser actors, a purely antagonistic performance, a jerk undeserving of much in the way of empathy. But Yelchin infuses Tim with a remarkable vulnerability; even as he needles and threatens the people around him, you’re fascinated by his weird energy.
Yelchin has always been a physically gifted performer, and here he’s no different: His body language constantly projects the insecurity that lies beneath his words, culminating in a final scene emblematic of the power shift that forms one of the movie’s central arcs. If Lily and Amanda, the two characters played by Taylor-Joy and Cooke, are both operating on a more deadpan frequency, as befits two characters struggling with honest feeling, Yelchin gets to be the live wire that provokes and disturbs the film’s otherwise smooth veneer. Finley, a playwright, drew from noir and the work of filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick to construct Thoroughbred’s atmospheric menace, and in that space, Yelchin feels particularly volatile.
“He put so much thought into every little tic and mannerism and delivery for that character, and was just, probably more than anyone on set, including me, a real student of film, and particularly of film noir,” Finley told me. “All those very subtle performances gave room for that one performance, Anton’s performance, to really be more playful.”
And it’s worth appreciating just how funny Yelchin is in this film, whether he’s bragging about his future as a kingpin, trying to hustle some poor kid, or puzzling over the teenage girls who end up making their own power play. Yelchin portrays the character as a man afraid he’ll be outed as a fraud at any minute, one who tries to talk and posture his way out of every situation. “On set, he is such an amazing improviser,” Finley said. “A lot of the little lines and moments that ended up in the film were not at all scripted.”
Yelchin also has a role in another movie at the festival, Mark Palansky’s Rememory, which premieres Wednesday. It’s hard to imagine he’ll be anything less than great in that as well. But Thoroughbred especially offers a showcase for a consummate character actor, the kind of presence that can’t help but elevate the film around him.
Beyond that, though, Yelchin will be missed for who he was, not only what he brought to his work. “He was just an amazing human being, and a light on set, and a really generous spirit,” Finley said. “We were really lucky to have him.”