‘Thoroughbreds’ (2017) | Fantastic Fest Review

I am always dubious when a director sets out to make a “dark comedy.” Sure, it’s probably my favorite genre, but the margin of error to strike the right tone is razor thin. If I ever feel a filmmaker go, “Look how edgy I’m being,” I immediately jump ship. The pleasure of a dark comedy is not in how dark you think you can get. It’s a matter of making sure the characters operating in this dark scenario are fully believable in the world, making jokes thematically appropriate. I am happy to report Thoroughbreds threads that needle wonderfully. The only issue is they don’t really make enough jokes.

Amanda (Olivia Cooke) is a teenage girl dealing some sort of undefined psychological disorder that prevents her from really experiencing emotions. She has recently become a pariah of sorts after killing her family horse. She is being tutored for the SATs by Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy). The two of them used to be very good friends but have had an estrangement in the last couple of years, particularly after the death of Lily’s father. Her new stepdad (Paul Sparks) is a proper alpha douchebag, and offhandedly, Amanda suggests Lily kill him. Initially, she is horrified by that idea, but the more time he is involved in her life, including forcing her to attend a new boarding school for troubled girls in the fall, that notion sounds all the more pleasant.

Cooke and Taylor-Joy have crackling chemistry. They each have such distinctive energies that watching them exist in the same space is exciting, and the juxtaposition of Cooke’s sunken, natural demeanor to Taylor-Joy’s precise, almost porcelain look creates a fascinating partnership. Taylor-Joy’s ability to be completely composed and out of her mind, in particular, is a delight. Their banter does not always meet their level of preciseness though. Some rat-a-tat back and forths hit with tremendous force, getting some big laughs, but quite often, the punchlines don’t have the same impact as their pace.

The real heroes of Thoroughbreds, though, are sound designer Roland Vajs and sound mixer Kevin S. Parker. We’ve seen so many movies using horror tropes that take place in mansions before. We know the sounds of prolonged silences followed by a loud crash or bang. The sound libraries have been mined time and time again. This film does not do that. There is a lot a eerie silence to be sure, but when we do her sound, it’s a gradual building hum, most notably from Lily’s stepdad’s rowing machine. Because of this, they are able to sustain their tension much longer than if they wanted to just occasionally startle the audience.

Cory Finley, making his writing and directing debut, already has a great strength in creating mood. Thoroughbreds is cold and calm, and I loved just sitting in it. I wasn’t always liking what was happening on screen, but Finley’s command of this hazy coolness was wonderful to immerse myself in. He utilizes long, steady takes effectively, particularly in the film’s off-screen climax, and knows what parts of the set and costuming are interesting enough to keep your focus on.

Thoroughbreds is not an entirely successful film, most notably in the humor department. Don’t get me wrong, there are quite a few laughs to be had, including from the late, great Anton Yelchin as a petty drug dealer Amanda and Lily bring into their scheme. However, it is pretty good first effort from Cory Finley, and I’m sure on his next time out he will only be able to hone these skills even more to fully capitalize on what he is already great at. Taylor-Joy has firmly cemented herself as someone I will go see in anything, and Cooke is working her way up (though she was still in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, and that hurts her). Don’t expect greatness here, but Thoroughbreds does have a decent amount of charms.

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