Many a media pundit would have us believe that millennials will be the downfall of Western civilization as we know it — and writer/director Cory Finley has made the fears of the upper crust manifest in his directorial debut, Thoroughbreds. Finley’s neo-noir, based on his own play, is effectively the realization of the worst nightmare of every absentee parent who pawned their kids off on nannies or boarding schools so that they could have successful lives without the baggage of family weighing them down — that nightmare being that maybe, just maybe, their kids needed something from them that money couldn’t buy.
Finley paints this portrait with a deft hand, producing a sense of empathy that his characters sorely lack. His story follows two maladjusted teens in a wealthy Connecticut enclave who reconnect after time apart, and the circumstances surrounding that separation slowly unfold over the course of the first act. Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) is the picture of privilege and polish, while her friend Amanda (Olivia Cooke) clearly has a screw loose and an ugly incident in her past. Both girls eventually prove to be deeply disturbed, and the superficiality of their introduction gives way to something much darker and stranger growing between them, a bond that builds toward an insidious act.
It plays a bit like Heavenly Creatures meets Rope, or maybe Strangers on a Train by way of Heathers. But Thoroughbreds is far more than the sum of its influences and marks Finley as a talent to watch, not only for his remarkable dialogue work — to be expected of a playwright — but also for his visual acuity and his knack for making interesting choices in sound design. Finley frames his picturesque shots of luxurious mansions with a forced perspective that deepens the sense of dread and unease commensurate with the spatial dilation between his characters, as a bizarre, quasi-tribal score pulses beneath the surface and diegetic sounds are heightened to an almost comical degree. The effect produced is one of both menace and surreality, giving way to comedic undertones that peek out around the corners in some deeply unexpected places.
Despite Finley’s razor-sharp script and surprisingly mature directorial style, Thoroughbreds could still have failed without strong performances — fortunately, Taylor-Joy and Cooke carry the film admirably, with ample support from the late Anton Yelchin in his final role. Yelchin gets a fitting, if tragically early, sendoff with an impressive turn as a small-time drug dealer who finds himself ensnared in the girls’ murderous plot à la Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity. The fact that Yelchin’s social-climbing loser turns out to be the only character in the film with anything resembling a moral compass underscores Finley’s point, namely that appearances are just that and nothing more. The filmmaker has turned a mirror on a culture of consumption that excuses corruption if it’s profitable and reveals that all the trappings of success mean nothing if the core is rotten. Beauty is only skin deep, but Thoroughbreds cuts to the bone.
Rated R for disturbing behavior, bloody images, language, sexual references and some drug content.
Now playing at the Fine Arts Theatre and Regal Biltmore Grande.