Not long ago, I watched Heathers, the 1989 dark comedy about a teen girl (Winona Ryder) whose deranged boyfriend (Christian Slater) keeps killing their classmates and making it look like suicide. Whereas Heathers, now a cult classic, is bitingly funny and a little too “very” (in the words of the Heathers) to be taken as anything other than satire, Thoroughbreds, the new teen murder movie being compared to Heathers, takes a dryer, more chilling angle that is more artful and a lot less fun.
In Thoroughbreds, Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) rekindle their friendship, but only after Amanda’s mom pays Lily $200 an hour to spend time with Amanda. While Lily is reeling after a hard time in her personal life, Amanda feels no emotions, making her a little dangerous and very off putting. When she picks up on how much Lily hates her stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks) she suggests they kill him. The pair blackmail small-time drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin in his final film) into helping them, but their plan goes startlingly awry.
Thoroughbreds is contained in a way that I really appreciate in movies. It’s a taut 92 minutes, includes just five central characters, and takes place almost entirely in the sprawling mansion of a set. It is also surprisingly light on social media and technology for a movie about teenagers. This focus lends itself beautifully to the character study that really lies under the murder plot.
The murder itself is not the most interesting part of the story. It’s a good hook, but the attention to Amanda and Lily’s evolving relationship is suspenseful and compelling in a different way. The characters, including the supposed bad guy, Mark, are not who they initially appear to be, and the revealing of these layers to their perspectives gives the final twist a lot of its punch.
In bringing these characters out with nuance and wit, Cooke and Taylor-Joy deliver evocative performances. Cooke is a stand-out for her portrayal of Amanda’s emotional detachment and her acute reading of other people’s feelings. Mark could have easily been a one-dimensional character. He’s depicted using many tropes of rich, rude, self-important “bro”ishness, but Sparks does an admirable job of bringing out a shift in perspective in a couple of key scenes.
Thoroughbreds is gorgeously crafted. The horse motif that runs through the movie is not heavy handed and manages to be foreboding. The mansion is almost absurdly big, but still claustrophobic and the choice to consistently use the same den and its big, white couch for scenes focused on the girls amps up the intimacy and the secrecy. In one scene, Amanda plays chess with a giant stone chess set on Lily’s lawn while describing a visceral killing. The acting and staging are so compelling and rich that the scene alone makes the movie worth watching. It is also the most reminiscent of Heathers, which heavily features croquet.
Even with all the parts I loved about Thoroughbreds, it was at times painfully slow. It seems torn between thriller and arthouse character study and really lags in places as a result. For better or worse, it’s not as funny or as violent as advertised, but it is more intriguing than I expected. I rate Thoroughbreds 3.5 of 5 stars.
If you’ve not seen Heathers, it is available on Netflix and is worth a screening. Winona Ryder’s agent thought that it would kill her career. Instead, it has spawned a musical and a TV show, and is the mother of movies such as Mean Girls and Jawbreaker. Parts of the film have not aged well; there’s a shocking amount of casual abuse in the central relationship, for example. But its dark humor and snappy dialogue earn that cult following.
Thoroughbreds was written and directed by Cory Finley and runs 92 minutes. Rated R for violence and language.
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