Thoroughbreds is a sparse, economic movie, the kind of film whose alternate life as a stage play is easy to imagine, down to the ominous allusion to teen-on-horse violence. From the start, over the sound of arrhythmic drum beats that might accompany a ritual sacrifice, we are presented with a classic two-hander. There’s perky overachieving rich girl Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and her not-quite-as-rich childhood best friend turned sociopath and rumored horse murderer Amanda (Olivia Cooke), reunited at the urging of their parents under the auspices of SAT tutoring. Light and dark, superego and id, let’s get chatting. Before the first act is over, however, Amanda’s relentless nihilism breaks Lily, who drops her Homecoming Queen act and admits that she has been paid to tutor Amanda and she’d rather be doing just about anything else. She meets Amanda at her affectless level, finally ready to be honest with her feelings, or lack thereof, and Amanda shows her appreciation with a stilted hug. When both of them stop caring about anything, the movie seems to tell us, these two jaded rich girls will be unstoppable.
The problem with Thoroughbreds is that a feature-length dialogue between two sociopaths does not make for very compelling drama, or comedy, for that matter. The flatness that is meant to shock early on quickly becomes boring, and the movie never sparks, slogging on in its nearly unbroken monotone all the way to its climactic moment. Director/writer Cory Finley doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with these outwardly emotionless young women after establishing that they are emotionless, though there are a lot of nods at the mad-as-hell teens of cinema past. But the high school murderers in, say, Heathers (a film to which Thoroughbreds has been frequently, mystifyingly compared since its debut at Sundance last year), while blasé and privileged, were also ridiculous; outsized caricatures of the myopia and narcissism of adolescence. There’s nothing fun about Amanda or Lily, and without fun — even the dark, malevolent variety — there’s not a whole lot else the film has to offer.
Lily’s secretly miserable, we learn, because of her stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks), with whom she has an icy, completely inscrutable antagonistic relationship. Is he a perv who makes her uncomfortable? Is she being abused? Or is he merely distasteful to her, with his juice cleanses and incessant whaling on his rowing machine? The film never deigns to explain, but rather than coming off as a kind of artful elision, it feels like a cop-out. The nature of Lily’s hatred of Mark — so intense that she schemes with Amanda to have him murdered — has a lot riding on it, and the film never seems to decide what’s driving it. Late in the film, a flare-up between Lily and Mark would seem to indicate that Mark’s unwillingness to capitulate to Lily’s entitlement is all he needs in order to inspire her murderous rage — an interesting idea, but never examined after that.
Lily and Amanda first conspire to blackmail a local small-time drug dealer into carrying out the murder, played by the late, gone-too-soon Anton Yelchin. It’s an unfortunate final turn for him: Tim is the only real foil for the girls’ detachment, but the class disparity between them is written about as subtly as a Dodge Neon crashing into a Rolls Royce. He’s likable, if only because Yelchin, even at his most wiry and wily, can’t help but find the humanity in a registered sex offender who deals coke on the side. His depth eclipses the two girls’ in the 20 or so minutes he has in the story, despite painful lines about how just wait, someday it will be him living in a big mansion with his family, “running the game.” He’s just there to be crushed by the girls, but his presence also crystallizes how boringly unstoppable they are. The girls dispense with him as soon as it’s clear he’s no longer useful, and the film forgets about him entirely.
If Thoroughbreds was about class in any kind of thoughtful way, it might accidentally stumble into something to say. But as the film nears the finish line, it becomes more narrowly focused on Amanda and Lily’s relationship, and its inevitable unhappy ending. The film’s one true stroke of brilliance is its long take of a climax, Finley’s single bloody scene in an otherwise bloodless (in every sense of the word) movie. It’s memorable and genuinely upsetting, and shows a clearly visionary technical eye that is reason enough to keep an eye on what Finley does next. But by its epilogue, which involves a character recounting a dream they had (oh boy), its mealy-mouthed attempt to draw a line between its titular prized horses and these supposedly well-bred, dead-inside teen girls, is just as much a pose as the rest of the film. The metaphor never tracks, but the clear hope is that it’s vague enough to be mistaken for evocative. And people who want to badly enough — and who understandably want that unsettling, darkly humorous movie about the rage and frustration of teenage girls that lands all its satire — will certainly be taken in.