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'Thoroughbreds' is a Sleek Thriller With No Heart

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Debut director Cory Finley has garnered effusive praise for his sleek new thriller Thoroughbreds, a runaway favorite at last year's Sundance Film Festival. Starring Olivia Cooke (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch), with Paul Sparks (House of Cards) and the late Anton Yelchin in supporting roles, the film charts the criminal plotting of two upper-class teenage girls in Connecticut. It opens Friday at select local theaters.

First off, it's splendid to look at. Finley has a marvelous command of cinema's technical elements, and though I initially rolled my eyes at comparisons to Hitchcock, they're not without merit. The thrills of the story are enhanced, a la Hitchcock, by precise and dramatic camera angles, lighting and — most especially — sound. The musical accompaniment throughout the film is not conventionally orchestral. There are tribal drums, sharply plucked strings, vocal percussion and other oddball sound effects that create symphonies of off-kilter tracks that are almost always surprising and impactful. The script, too, on a line-by-line level, is a terrific success. The dialogue is brisk and smart in scenes that pulse with tension and a dark, sometimes perverse, sense of humor.

But the story itself left me cold as a flash-frozen McDonald's hamburger. In fact, the film has been difficult for me to reckon with critically because I found it so accomplished from a technical perspective, but so distressing from a narrative one. There was little, if anything, redemptive in the film's two leads.

Lily and Amanda are former grade-school friends. They are super rich, occupying a social stratum that seems increasingly remote and indefensible these days. They live in manicured suburban Connecticut, presumably children of the depraved tickertape goblin-bros we saw in Wolf of Wall Street. When Amanda (Cooke) arrives at Lily's mansion in an opening scene, she explores the interior rooms with what looks like the snide judgment of someone from the other side of the tracks. But it turns out she's from the same neighborhood, the same school district.

And so the "problems" they hope to solve by killing Lily's stepdad, Mark (Paul Sparks), never satisfyingly materialize. Lily has been expelled for plagiarism from Andover, the famed boarding school, and she's distraught that Mark intends to send her to another one, a school for girls with behavior problems. And while this guy is clearly a rich scumbag, he never appears abusive or even all that stern. What he is, to Lily, is kind of annoying. He is offscreen for his gravest offense, when Lily's mother explains away a lengthy stint in a tanning bed by admitting that Mark prefers her "with a little color." Aloof big-shot butthead, sure. But honestly not measurably worse than Lily herself, who charged Amanda's mother $200 an hour to tutor her former best friend in SAT prep.

Amanda's situation is tougher to parse. She is mentally ill — possibly schizophrenic and periodically medicated — but the script presents her as a deadpan bad-ass who, because she can't "feel anything," couldn't care less about anyone else's emotions. Cooke fully inhabits this character and delivers the script's most biting lines: "My mom can't pick me up. She's busy," Amanda tells Mark one night. "With what?" he asks. "Chemotherapy," she lies, dead serious.

What to make, though, of these heroines and their foolhardy plan? What is at stake for them? Is this a quest by Amanda to push the limits of her experience in order to feel? That seems unlikely, given that she opened the film by attempting to euthanize a beloved horse, but ended up committing an act of savagery that, if filmed, would've been right at home in Cannibal Holocaust. Mercifully, we aren't witnesses to the brutality, though Amanda later describes it in detail. What about Lily? Does she want Mark dead because he's the one person who recognizes how selfish she is? Who can say?

Far and away the most sympathetic character is Tim (Yelchin) a small-time drug dealer with big dreams, who's roped into the murder plot against his will. His ambitions are mocked by Amanda. She tells him his life is not worth living because he works at a nursing home and lives with his dad. My problem with Thoroughbreds is I was never sure whose side it was on. Who was being critiqued? Who was being satirized? According to Thoroughbreds, whose lives were worth living? I worried that the answer was no one's.

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