London Film Festival: ‘Thoroughbreds’ Review

It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the BFI’s 61st London Film Festival (4-15 October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.

Xin Yi Wang examines Cory Finley’s film debut.

Thoroughbreds lives and breathes suspense.

A success as a highly stylish film noir, Thoroughbreds never slows down on thrill as it runs its course. Watching it feels like standing on a ledge metres above the ground; the problem is, I don’t know why I was on a ledge. Playwright Cory Finley’s debut in cinema centres on duo Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), focusing on the dark interiors of two teenage girls in sunny Connecticut suburbia but forgetting to add much to its own interior. An example of style over substance, its percussion-based score pounds the ears, screaming on full blast: “This film is suspenseful and grim!”, but its bizarre plot, awkward pace and overdone tone just dofesn’t carry enough depth to justify itself. Hence, a state of confusion.

Estranged childhood friends reunite when Amanda’s mother recruits Lily to tutor her daughter. Though Amanda’s sociopathic behaviour clashes with Lily’s lady-like demeanour, the girls bond. Lily expresses her dislike of her stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks), and a sarcastic comment about murder quickly morphs into a real plan. Somewhere along the way, they rope in small-time drug dealer Tim, played by the electrifying late Anton Yelchin.

The film wastes no effort in trying to convince or justify why Lily wants her stepfather dead. He is painted with broad strokes as a cartoonish asshole to her and her mother, but Finley doesn’t spend enough time with the character, and only establishes that he’s horrible and Lily hates him. Sure, his rowing and fitness routine is annoying; sure, he has aggression issues; sure, he is over-controlling. He comes off more as annoying than someone who would warrant a homicidal plan, and as the audience we are expected to accept that two teenage girls are plotting to kill a grown man just because.

This makes it hard to empathise with Lily, as part of her death plan is rooted in teenage selfishness and a general stuck-up rich-girl attitude. Finley might be making a point about adolescence superficiality, but that feels like over-reading the text. Despite my problems with motivation, Anya Taylor-Joy plays Lily’s strings with such sharpness and underlying conflict, portraying Lily to her full potential in an otherwise strong character. Before one can realise, Taylor-Joy transforms the formal and awkward Lily in a mesmerising performance, walking on the thin thread of a break down.

Thoroughbreds’ strength lies in its main characters and their dynamic. Olivia Cooke is unforgettable as Amanda, delivering lines with deadpan precision and a brilliant command of black comedy, illustrating Amanda as one for the books. Her aloofness and the chemistry between Cooke and Taylor-Joy easily convince the companionship the girls quickly found in each other – simple conversational scenes are thoroughly entertaining as are intense sequences gripping. Unlike Lily’s motivations, Amanda’s work fine: her primary aim is to support and aid Lily, finding a purpose in caring for her only friend. Yelchin, in a smaller role, provides much hilarity and charisma in a situation of plain strange bizarreness. Stealing scenes whenever he appears on screen, he adds a distinct energy into the film as Tim unwillingly joins the duo in their misadventures.

In a film with such strong characters, it’s a shame they’re undercut by Finley’s emphasis on creating suspense and fear. He prioritises how the characters attempt murder instead of why. It’s obvious the characters might have depth to them, yet Thoroughbreds refuses to dig a little deeper. For example, the film’s repeated fixation on horses and horse imagery goes nowhere except as a set-up to Amanda’s sociopathy and a shared childhood memory, making this seemingly important motif quite pointless.

The score stands out too much – loud and purposefully ominous, it can be played over any footage to make it seem uncomfortable and unnerving. Finley’s main technique in creating suspense is over-reliant on sound and pushes it way too close, spoiling the subtleties present in his characters. In comparison to recent releases such as Dunkirk and mother!, films which similarly use sound design in the creation of suspense and horror – to their success – Thoroughbreds overdoes it. You end up constantly hoping the soundtrack will stop making you feel anxious over a straightforward scene. Thoroughbreds‘ sharp editing is effective but carries the same problems as the score.

Nonetheless, Thoroughbreds is a mark of ambitious filmmaking that attempts to utilise what the medium of cinema can offer. It’s a pity it did not make the best of its potential.

6/10

Thoroughbreds premiered on October 9th in the UK, at the London Film Festival. Watch director Cory Finley discuss the film in the Sundance clip below:

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