Thoroughbreds is a film of exquisite style and deceptive substance. The story of a sociopath plotting an imperfect murder should make fans of Patricia Highsmith and Alfred Hitchcock happy. The imaginative sound design should make audio junkies happy. The film as a whole should make adventurous moviegoers happy.
Not that any of the characters share in said joy. The sociopath is Amanda (a wonderfully restrained Olivia Cooke), a teen misfit who becomes a pariah after she puts a horse out of its misery. Her reluctant acolyte and childhood friend is Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), still mourning the death of her father and despising the existence of her quite despisable stepfather. "I have a perfectly healthy brain," Amanda tells Lily near the beginning of the film. "It just doesn't contain any feelings." At least she's honest.
Like Robert Walker's character Bruno Antony in the Hitchcock/Highsmith jewel Strangers on a Train, Amanda figures maybe she can help her friend dispose of her problem. Unlike Bruno, she doesn't really want anything in return. Or does she? The interplay between Cooke and Taylor-Joy evolves down dark paths as the film progresses, but it also retains a knowing sense of humor and understanding of the rage that can build inside a teenage girl. Cooke and Taylor-Joy make for a vivid contrast, much of which resides in the eyes: Amanda's are curious but largely dead; Lily's, vulnerable, reflect shock and admiration for her friend's boldness.
Lily lives in an ivy-covered, red brick mansion, and cinematographer Lyle Vincent delights in probing the massive rooms and symbols of opulence. This is a film that uses long, mobile camera takes to accentuate realism of space and character dynamics. It also has a lot of fun with rack focus, a technique that alternates the focus between background and foreground without moving the camera. (Robert Altman made great use of rack focus).
But sound is as crucial to Thoroughbreds' effect as sight. Erik Friedlander's score is a spiky mix of astringent strings and ominous kettledrum, a reflection of the characters' volatile moods. The music pairs well with Roland Vajs' sound design, which writer-director Cory Finley is smart enough to put in the foreground at every opportunity. Lily's stepdad (Paul Sparks) is always on his rowing machine, the sound of which drones through the house like a car trying to start underwater. The drone ends up playing a key storytelling role in the film's climax.
Thoroughbreds also marks a sad milestone: It's the final screen performance from Anton Yelchin, the young actor killed in a freak 2016 car accident. (He was crushed by his own Jeep.) Here he plays Tim, a small-time drug dealer with delusions of grandeur, a cocky, scraggly, clueless kid who talks about how he'll run everything one day. Yelchin makes it clear he's in on the joke. Tim is the male patsy that every femme fatale needs.
Thoroughbreds gets a little claustrophobic at times as it tries to breathe through its aesthetic layers. But it's always cinematic, to a level especially impressive considering Finley adapted it from his own stage play. This is a highly effective, visually adroit feature debut, a nasty little pleasure spearheaded by a girl who can't feel anyone's pain.
R (disturbing behavior, bloody images, language, sexual references and some drug content). 92 minutes. In wide release.