People who lack emotions, ironically, can spur conflicted emotions in filmgoers. As Amanda (“Ready Player One’s” Olivia Cooke) says in “Thoroughbreds,” since she doesn’t feel emotions, she has to work harder to be good. As a viewer who does feel emotions, I dislike her for lacking something that defines humanity, but then I chastise myself. After all, Amanda’s brain chemistry is not her fault, and if she hasn’t committed any evil actions, perhaps she should receive even more praise than someone whose actions come from morality.
Now available for home viewing after a limited theatrical run in March, “Thoroughbreds” gives us plenty of time to mull such philosophical concepts. The feature-length debut from writer-director Cory Finley could almost be a stage play, except that few stages are as lavish as this film’s centerpiece mansion, and there are some wordless scenes that ask the viewer to bring their own interpretations. At one point, for example, it seems Lily (“Split’s” Anya-Taylor Joy) tries to kill herself in Amanda’s presence, Amanda saves her, and it goes without comment from either one.
Mark (Paul Sparks), Lily’s stepfather, ranges from annoying to horrifying. A lot of his characterization actually comes from watching Lily’s face as she listens to Mark’s rowing machine droning on upstairs. It’s too extreme to say Mark is killable – he fits the category of punchable – but an offhand comment from Amanda gets Lily thinking about how she might go about offing him. The girls’ attempt to pull this off is the entirety of “Thoroughbred’s” plot.
Amanda has no feelings about anything, so she might be categorized as a sociopath in the pop-cultural sense (although alexithymia might be a more accurate term for her condition), whereas Lily feels things strongly but lacks empathy, so she would be categorized as a teenager (cue rim shot). “Thoroughbreds” could be read as a treatise on the importance of nurturing parents and role models, as we see Lily is intrigued by Amanda rather than repulsed.
Sometimes the phrase “dark comedy” is laughable (pun intended) because the darkness so overwhelms any chance of comedy, and the pitch-black “Thoroughbreds” comes close to fitting that bill. When small-time drug-dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin, in one of his final performances) enters the picture as a gun-for-hire (well, gun-for-blackmail, technically), he brings some laughs. I smiled at the scene where Amanda grills him about how many guns he owns. “I own one gun; I’m not Rambo,” Tim says, flustered. This is another of Yelchin’s turns that reminds us we lost him too soon.
But generally, there’s nothing funny about Amanda’s and Lily’s plan to kill Mark. It’s not twisty or filled with hijinks; it’s straightforward. However, it is nonetheless compelling, because Finley invites us into the psychological makeup of the girls. Cooke is already a young star, and Taylor-Joy is hot on her heels. Both are magnetic.
And while the film isn’t stylized – like “American Psycho,” for instance — it does set a conspiratorial tone with its score’s squeaky violins. We’re not exactly complicit with the killers, but we do get closer than is comfortable to understanding their deep desire to get rid of Mark so they can find out if something better is on the other side of that action.
That said, I’m glad “Thoroughbreds” is only 92 minutes long. It broods on the mental makeups of these two girls, but doesn’t have any twists and turns to the plot until one fascinating character choice toward the end.
“Thoroughbreds” tacks on some social commentary in a closing voiceover that contrasts with the bring-your-own-subtext quality before that. Another arguable misstep is the central relationship; it seems like Lily and Amanda have just met, but some moments hint at a longer friendship.
The audience for “Thoroughbreds” would be limited even if its theatrical release wasn’t. I like the three main actors and I am generally a fan of character studies, but even I felt this film bordered on being a bit too understated. An impressive calling card from the technically adept Finley, “Thoroughbreds’ ” grim material will repel most viewers but enthrall people with long attention spans.