Is a sociopath a showy role? Maybe if you’re Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sherlock Holmes it is, but on the other hand it implies the lack of emotion. In writer-director Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, Olivia Cooke gives an excellent sociopath performance, and shows that lack of emotion does not equate to lack of expressiveness or lack of engagement. Importantly, Finley’s screenplay never gives the character an off-key note. This tale of two affluent but alienated high school “friends” makes for a solid debut for first-time filmmaker Cory Finley.
The film concerns two young women who bring out unexpected things in each other. Lily Reynolds (Anya Taylor-Joy) is an uptight student who offers to tutor former childhood friend Amanda (Cooke) for the SAT, after certain acts have made Amanda a social pariah in addition to being a “weirdo”. Each character learns from the other’s worldview and a modest criminal proposal comes out of their partnership. So Thoroughbreds finds good company with female-friends-in-a-bubble movies (Heavenly Creatures) and teenage black comedies (Heathers) while skewing less comedic and methodically charting its own course.
Both actresses bring the sparring character dynamics vividly to life, but Cooke steals the whole movie. After setting up the incident that has made Amanda somewhat infamous, we get the scene where she lays out her perspective. It’s her Jaime Lannister moment, where the backstory is recontextualized. Because Cooke does not play the scene for sympathy, but rather with a matter-of-fact delivery, sympathy comes naturally. On top of navigating the dramatic side of things, she also has to deal with the actorly business of playing a passable oversized chess game against herself! As great as her scene partners are, it feels like they’re just feeding the beast that is Olivia Cooke.
While this performance is magnetic, the film hums along on a solid wavelength without achieving true flight. Finley’s dialogue is sharp, but the wider satirical point being made is only developed with vague brushstrokes. This is primarily an issue because it ties in directly with the in your face, suburban-crime-story driving force of the plot. The film has been compared with the aforementioned Heathers, but that Winona Ryder vehicle is operatic while Thoroughbreds is intimate. Slight qualms aside, it owns its space well.
Perhaps the film’s greatest success is the talent it showcases. In the past, Olivia Cooke has been the best thing about a bad movie (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), impressed in a pixelated Spielberg flick (Ready Player One) and lit up the screen in The Limehouse Golem. This is her best showcase yet, and there’s more to come. Anya Taylor-Joy is similarly an actress at the start of what should be a standout career. Thoroughbreds is indeed the final screen appearance of Anton Yelchin. With his open face and shakey voice, he will be missed.
Finley’s assured debut is recommended for anyone who enjoys high school-age movies with bite, and look for it to likely be remembered for Best Actress come awards time (by this blog, not the Academy). In an early scene, Amanda teaches Lily “the Technique” for fake crying. I played along with the instructions, as you do, and by George, it works!