“Thoroughbred” opens with a scene that on the surface seems fairly tame — a teenage girl stares deeply into the eyes of her horse while petting his head. As the camera lingers, unflinching, for several minutes, things start to get really uncomfortable. Suddenly there’s a cut to a backpack being unzipped and a large knife being removed. We never see what happens after that, but it’s not too difficult to guess. The audience eventually learns what happened in that barn through a vivid vocal description, but we never see it. We don’t have to. Simply imagining the horrors is torture enough.
That’s where this film, based on a stage play by the writer / director Cory Finley, excels. Finley is great at tension building in the most basic of ways. It’s a skillful homage to the Alfred Hitchcock school of filmmaking where sometimes the reactions of the characters and the imagination of the audience can be scarier than showing the actual grisly details. There’s an intense scene with a computer and gruesome animal cruelty photos — I had such a physical reaction to the stressors that I had to look away, although we never see what’s happening on the laptop screen and the bloody photos are never shown. This tactic is used again later in the film to a startling, alarming effect, and becomes one of the film’s most well executed and shocking set pieces.
The film is pointlessly told in four chapters and since it is based on a play, it’s dialogue heavy and at times feels more like a stage production than a movie. Luckily Finley has a knack for visual flair and is proficient at building tension with a camera. The film has an unsettling drum heavy score that casts an eerie, ominous feeling, and the cool aloofness of the performances from leads Anya Taylor-Joy (Lily) and Olivia Cooke (Amanda) fits the material just right. There’s a great out of character turn from the late Anton Yelchin (to whom the film is dedicated) as a low-level drug dealer, sex offender, would-be murderer, and aspiring dreamer.
The story revolves around two pretty, rich white girls with serious mental issues. After one is accused of animal cruelty for killing her horse and the other snaps when her step dad (Paul Sparks) announces that he’s sending her away to a boarding school for troubled girls, these psychopathic teenagers decide to plot his murder. There are hints that Lily’s step dad is sexually abusing her, and he is introduced in a creepy, sinister fashion. It’s only later that we realize the truth: that these are superficial problems of the elite and amount to little more than a serious case of teen angst.
The majority of “Thoroughbred” is pretty fantastic. Too bad the director had to go and spoil it with a tacked on, irrelevant epilogue. I completely understand the director’s desire to keep the final scene in the movie, but only because the film’s last line is pretty great. It is a fantastic way to verbally close the film, but I would have preferred that the story end at Chapter 4 rather than with this extraneous scene. It really hurts the tone of the movie and the ending all but ruined it for me.
This film was screened and reviewed at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival.