Saturday, August 31, 2019

Review: Thoroughbreds (2018)

Thoroughbreds (2018)

Rated R for disturbing behavior, bloody images, language, sexual references, and some drug content

Score: 5 out of 5

Until I finally picked it up on DVD, Thoroughbreds was a movie that I knew mainly as "the one that got away". I was going to see it in theaters at the AMC Aventura, a massive 24-screen theater that's usually where to go in the Miami area when looking for smaller movies that get limited releases, only for me to seriously underestimate the traffic around the Aventura Mall, leading me to make a double feature of Tomb Raider and The Hurricane Heist instead. Well, having finally gotten around to seeing it, my only complaint is towards myself for taking so long. Thoroughbreds is a film that's gotten a lot of comparisons to Heathers (just look at the critics' quotes on the poster above), many of which I can see myself, particularly in its satire of a pair of teenage girls with more money and privilege than sense. But it's very much its own beast, a beautifully shot and twisted noir thriller with a pitch-black comedic streak to it, a plot that felt genuinely unpredictable, and a pair of outstanding lead performances from two excellent young actors. Don't make the same mistake that I did and, going by the box-office receipts, so many others did. Seek this out.

The main characters here are Lily and Amanda, a pair of suburban teens in Connecticut who had drifted apart after middle school, with Amanda's parents hiring Lily to tutor her. If Amanda is one of the haves, then Lily is one of the have-mores, and her extremely well-groomed demeanor and wardrobe stand out sharply next to Amanda's frumpier jackets. Amanda is also a straight-up sociopath. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it: she admits to Lily that she does not feel emotion, and has spent her whole life faking it. So when she witnesses what an asshole Lily's stepfather Mark is, Amanda pops the question to her: why don't we just kill him?

Lily and Amanda are a study in contrasts. To put it bluntly, Amanda is a girl who pretends to show emotion and has spent her whole life studying others in order to better pretend to be normal, while Lily puts on a mask of aloofness that barely conceals the fact that she is genuinely pissed off about a lot of things in her life. Both of them are rich, but Lily is thoroughly draped in it, while Amanda's baggier jackets and more unkempt hair illustrate the "middle" side of her upper-middle-class upbringing. Immediately, Amanda feels out of place in Lily's lavish home, grabbing a bag of chips and leaving it on the counter after some brief snacking (to be quickly put away by Lily's mom) without caring one bit about appearances, and so, almost immediately, we're led to believe that Amanda is going to corrupt Lily. Things are a bit more complicated than that, however. As the two of them interact and plan to murder Mark, their personalities start to converge, as Lily becomes better able to mask her real emotions and put them aside while Amanda, despite all her statements to the contrary, clearly is being affected by the weight of what she and her friend have set out to do. The two lead actresses here, Anya Taylor-Joy as Lily and Olivia Cooke as Amanda, are both phenomenal. Taylor-Joy, a very preppy-looking young woman in real life, looks the part of the young ice queen/Alexis-Colby-in-training and plays it well, only to let the mask slip early on and reveal somebody who is deeply frustrated with life, having been expelled from her private school due to behavioral issues that have caused Mark to consider reform school as an option. She looked and felt like somebody straining under the contradictions of the world she's grown up in. Cooke, meanwhile, is playing more or less a live-action Daria Morgendorffer whose disaffected cynicism is taken to the logical extreme, one who's learned how to fake her way through life -- and watching Amanda teach Lily how to fake-cry even when she actually isn't feeling a thing, I was left wondering about Cooke herself. (I also forgot that she was British while watching this, such was her spot-on Connecticut accent.) And together, they paint a satirical portrait of privilege run amok as nobody steps in to consider what they're up to and have planned, or just how petty their reasons for killing Mark are.

This becomes clear as we get a closer look at Mark himself. Paul Sparks plays him as a dick: no ifs, ands, or buts. He's more than a bit extra; the first we see of him is in a pair of pictures on his desk, one of him posing with a lion he shot on a hunting trip and another of him in a dojo gripping a samurai sword, which we then see hanging over the mantelpiece, and the first we see of him in person is of him clad in lycra riding gear, chewing out Lily after coming home from a ride. That said, while he is a dick, is he as bad as Lily says he is? He's sending Lily to reform school, but the fact that Lily got expelled from her last school and is having thoughts about murdering him indicates that he may have a point, and to his credit, we never see him hitting her or her mother. From all appearances we get, he genuinely cares about his family, and his only crime seems to be his hard-ass personality, as even Amanda starts to recognize as the film goes on. Lending credence to the idea that Lily and Amanda are the real villains, too drunk on privilege to recognize what's wrong with their plan, is Tim, the drug dealer, convicted pedophile, and all-around sack of shit who they bring into their plot as an accomplice. The late Anton Yelchin (this was one of his final roles) plays Tim as somebody who's too clueless to realize what he's getting himself into until it's too late, convinced that he's gonna be a drug kingpin in roughly ten years who'll be moving in next door to people like Lily -- even though, once he does, he's gonna have to tell all of his new neighbors about his spot on the sex offender registry. It's almost comical what Lily and Amanda put him through, knowing that there's not a damn thing he can do to stop them even when he gets cold feet about the plan, since they have both blackmail material on him and their families' high-powered lawyers on speed-dial. He isn't in the film for very long, but he was a treat, laying the film's satirical thrust bare for all to see. The difference between people like Tim and people like Lily and Amanda is money, as the latter know that they can set up a poor person to take the fall for them, while Tim eventually figures out that they're just using him.

All this takes place in a world that made me want to move to Connecticut. Much of the action happens in and around Lily's home, an enormous mansion that you can tell right away has been inhabited by her family for several generations. This may be more or less a parlor piece with only four main characters, but writer/director Cory Finley takes a story that could easily have been a stage play (indeed, according to the special features, he originally wrote it as such) and makes it feel truly cinematic. We spend the film constantly immersed in Lily's bubble of extreme wealth from her home to a trip to the spa, made to feel almost alien from the few glimpses we get of the "real" world, whether it be Amanda's house (also large, but decidedly suburban) or the teen party where Lily first encounters Tim. The framing of the characters and their setting is very old-fashioned, reliant on long takes and a stable camera to build a sense of unease, whether it be Lily showing Amanda how long she can hold her breath underwater (done by having Taylor-Joy actually go underwater for close to a minute) or the pivotal climatic scene, which made a girl resting on a sofa into something I could not take my eyes away from. Whatever it was doing, this movie always looked absolutely sumptuous while it was doing it.

The Bottom Line

I can't believe I waited this long to check this out. While it undoubtedly wears the influence of Heathers on its sleeve, it is very much its own movie with its own ideas on its mind. It's a film that really deserved better promotion, one that will be right up your alley if you're even the slightest fan of dark comedy.

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