Misery loves company in genre-skirting black comedy “Thoroughbreds”

In memory of Anton Yelchin, 1989-2016.

Courtesy of Focus Features

Navigating the spotless, pearly interiors of the Connecticut mansion where most of “Thoroughbreds” takes place is a foreign exercise, the old-money exuberance displayed having more in common with a Giger-esque tesseract than any house most of the world is familiar with. Much of the film takes place here, though perhaps only a quarter of it is explored. If film canon has taught us anything about places like this, it’s that richly decorated, lavish settings flawed in no discernable regard, hide a deep-seated bed of anxieties. Be they callous classism or family drama, these anxieties usually manifest through someone (usually young) lighting the spark that sets this old world ablaze.

This formula largely dictates the direction of “Thoroughbreds,” but where the film deviates from this is where it mines a well of darkly fascinating ideas. It’s a devilishly funny story that understands precisely where comedy is appropriate and how to relay the heavier ideas without screaming to the audience where they should stand. Sitting right at 90 minutes, its margin of error is slight to non-existent, a commendable feat for first-time filmmaker Cory Finley, whose history as a playwright shapes this film’s form and aesthetics marvelously.

Lighting the spark to set events in motion is Amanda (Olivia Cooke, whose comic deadpan cannot be praised enough). She’s depressed, or anxious or sociopathic with schizoid tendencies — it’s unclear, she says her psychiatrist flips through pages of the DSM-5 and slaps her with a different label each visit. The point is, she’s incapable of feeling emotion in the same way her childhood friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, with the precision of a surgeon over her tightly measured performance) is. What one lacks the other has, but this isn’t to morally align one or the other; they’re two sides to the same coin, and Finely imbues the film’s morality with shades of grey.

In the beginning of the film, amid shuffling and neighing, something occurs between Amanda and a thoroughbred horse. As with stage productions, what occurs is out of frame but we’re implicitly directed to store it in our memory for the duration of the film. This results in Lily — whose upbringing has placed her years beyond conventional high school education, allowing her to graduate from prep school ahead of her peers — being under the employ of Amanda’s mother to tutor her estranged friend. In the early minutes of the film, we see Lily as she’s been her whole life: Sheltered, polite and, most critically, dishonest, brimming with emotions kept at bay for so long. The observant Lily, whose entire life has been a series of obstacles she admits she’s had to work harder to overcome on account of her flat affect, naturally pierces her facade and unravels the Amanda we know for the remainder of the film: Sharp and in tune with her emotions, yet uncertain with what to do with her unlocked volatility.

The two resemble something more akin to a superorganism than a pair of foils. When the two entertain the notion of killing Lily’s stepfather (Paul Sparks), they devise a plot that requires the assistance of third-rate drug dealer Tim (the wonderful Anton Yelchin in his final film role). Unlike the girls, he’s far removed from the elitism they’ve been bred into, and Yelchin’s human touch to the film elevates the film’s comic unpredictability by a few notches. As with the cult classic the film cannot escape comparisons to, “Heathers,” their goal is less important than the obstacles in the way between them and a dead stepdad.

“Thoroughbreds” circumvents problems that potentiate when penning a black comedy so reliant on deadpan from its leads through Finley’s stylish direction. Without being overly reliant on comparisons to other films, suffice to say its flatter moments near the austerity of Yorgos Lanthimos’ signature dryness without treading too deeply into familiar waters; Lily is still struggling to fit into her new skin, after all, and the humanity imbued by Taylor-Joy and Yelchin level out the tone dynamics. Sonically, too, “Thoroughbreds” is exciting. Composer Erik Friedlander’s score does things difficult to ascribe a label to, tensing up scenes with percussive explosions and electronic minefields whose punches land strong in this environment of bourgeois comfort.

Perhaps a boon and a crutch to this film’s exploration of empathy and violence is Finley’s reluctance to outright condemn or acquit any of its characters of wrongdoing. The best films, of course, refuse to pave the way for one-dimensional understandings of something so complex as wealth disparities or human emotion, but they typically leave a trail both exciting to follow and crushing in its complexities. There’s a trail here, but it’s shrouded in a fog difficult to penetrate; look for it, though, and there’s a wealth of interesting ideas bouncing between one another in perpetual cynicism.

Verdict: This black comedy crime thriller cuts into familiar territories that others such as Michael Haneke and Daniel Waters have tapped into, but imbues originality into its critiques by simultaneously examining the emotional grounds adjacent to them. When it wants to be, it’s downright hilarious; other times, it’s cruel. Ultimately what guides this film successes are its excellent leads and Cory Finley’s genre-defying direction.

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