By Liam Lacey
A pair of ultra-privileged Connecticut teenage girls plan a murder in Thoroughbreds, a dark and witty drama to put some jitters in your jodhpurs. Created by young playwright Cory Finley, Thoroughbreds is consciously literate, divided into four onscreen chapters, and Finley practically invites you to check the theatrical influences: Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, and, too obviously, Peter Shaffer's Equus.
But there’s nothing stale about the precision of the performances and nerve-jangling sound design. Most of the action is set in a giant coffin-box of a suburban mansion, where the camera glides about like a ghostly servant.
Amanda (Olivia Cooke, Bates Motel, Ouija) arrives at the grand entrance of the home of her old friend, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, The Witch, Split) for a sort of playdate, and a chance to practice their college admission test together. As it turns out, the date is being paid for by Amanda’s worried mother. The girls were friends in middle school, around the time Lily's father died. Lily is, apparently, a success, attending a fancy prep school and enjoying an internship at a financial company. Amanda, the "troubled" one, is under a cloud for an animal cruelty crime.
Their back story is filled in during their awkward reunion, which is filled with funny verbal and physical miscues. ("I thought you were going to attack me," says Lily, when Amanda suddenly lurches forward to give her a hug.)
Amanda really doesn’t understand how social cues work. "I've a perfectly healthy brain," she explains. "It just doesn't contain feelings."
Without much prompting, Amanda explains that her psychiatrist seems to have been flipping through the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders looking for a diagnosis and has settled on "anti-social behaviour," the catch-all that includes sociopathic behaviour. To fit in, she has learned to simulate ordinary emotions by becoming a good observer, especially of other people's vulnerabilities and suppressed emotions.
She quickly grasps, for example, that Lily despises her arrogant, intrusive stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks, House of Cards). Mark has managed to retire in his mid-40s and now spends his time on his rowing machine and juice cleansing. Meanwhile, Lily's mother (Kailli Vernoff) hides out, Dracula-like, in her tanning bed.
Amanda, who idolizes the late Steve Jobs, suggests that Lily should really start thinking outside the box: What if she could just get rid of Mark? At first Lily is appalled but then she won't let go of the idea. After a clumsy first attempt, where Lily tampers with Mark's racing bicycle, the girls start to make serious plans. It becomes their way of connecting with each other.
Their plan isn't particularly ingenious: they approach a local loser, Tim (the late Anton Yelchin), a one-time rich boy, now a skeevy drug dealer with a statutory rape charge against him. They have an old-fashioned idea: a homicide disguised as a botched robbery, though there are a few wrinkles along the way.
Evaluated as a straight procedural, Thoroughbreds is neither especially inventive nor plausible and the conclusion — a letter from one of the girls read in voiceover — is a bit of an eye-roller. Where Thoroughbreds excels is in characterization and performances.
Both the young actresses, who have developed scream queen reputations, are engaged in something more complex and original here, a kind of negotiation between Amanda (who is logical but emotionally numb) and Lily (full of feelings but with little sense of proportion). Refreshingly, neither girl relies on stereotypical sexual manipulation to get what she wants. Perhaps, as blue bloods, they're used to exercising power in more dominant and effective ways.
Thoroughbreds. Written and directed by Cory Finley. Starring Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Anton Yelchin. Opens wide March 9.