Friday, March 9, 2018

Thoroughbreds: Bad breeding

Thoroughbreds (2017) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated R, for profanity and disturbing content

By Derrick Bang

Watching two teenage sociopaths chat their way up to a homicide isn’t my notion of a good time.

Writer/director Cory Finley obviously feels otherwise, since that dynamic is the sole raison d’être for Thoroughbreds, a thoroughly dull and unpleasant little study in girls behaving very badly.

Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, background) feigns innocence, sweetness and light, but — as this
film progresses — we begin to wonder if she's even more twisted than her sorta-kinda
best friend Amanda (Olivia Cooke).
Not that such a topic can’t generate an absorbing or even fascinating storyline. But Finley hasn’t the skill for such an exercise; his film lacks the darkly snarky impudence of Heathers, or the alluringly warped fantasy elements of Heavenly Creatures, or the hypnotic creepiness of Stoker. All three are unsettling — and far more successful — studies of young women dabbling in murder.

Thoroughbreds is Finley’s first effort at writing or directing, and it shows. He stretches a 15-minute premise way beyond endurance — even at an otherwise economical 92 minutes — and his relentless reliance on talking-heads set-ups too frequently makes this feel like a boring stage play. Indeed, it could have been such, except for Finley’s fondness for cinematographer Lyle Vincent’s languorously long and sweeping tracking shots through the hallways and stairwells of the opulent home wherein one of our protagonists resides.

The talking heads in question belong to Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), two insufferably spoiled white-bread bitches whose parents clearly have more money than God. As introduced, Amanda is “troubled,” while Lily is the “noble spirit doing a good deed” via tutoring lessons. But it’s not that simple, and appearances are deceiving.

Actually, they aren’t. It’s pretty obvious, from the start, that both of these girls are warped Bad News.

Amanda, at least, appears to have an excuse. She’s clinically, emotionally barren: unable to experience joy, sorrow or anything in between. She’s therefore brutally blunt and candid during casual conversation, puncturing and stepping beyond all protective levels of social decorum.

Cooke plays this role persuasively, with an intense, owl-eyed stare and vocal delivery that lacks all inflection. We’d think Amanda compromised by an excessively high drug regimen, except that her perceptive gaze misses nothing, and her seemingly detached observations are uncomfortably frank. But that shtick wears thin, as does her black, dead-eyed stare; Finley overuses both.

Cooke may be remembered for her winning turn in 2015’s under-appreciated Me and Earl and the Dying Girl; she’s also soon to star as Becky Sharp in the Amazon/ITV miniseries adaptation of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. One hopes she can put this current effort behind her as quickly as possible.

Lily’s luxurious surroundings notwithstanding, at first blush Taylor-Joy plays her as a cheerful, chirpy girl trying to do a favor for somebody who once was a close friend, until becoming a very public social outcast in the wake of a heinous event involving a horse (thankfully kept off-camera, although implied in the film’s opening scene). But Lily’s family dynamic is laden with anxiety; she still mourns the loss of her father, and clearly despises her step-father, Mark (Paul Sparks).

With good reason: He’s a verbally abusive, easily angered, passive/aggressive monster who misses no opportunity to browbeat Lily and her mother (Francie Swift, reasonably effective as a weak-willed doormat).

Ergo, it’s no surprise when the unnervingly direct Amanda suggests that Lily would be better off without him. Shock and horror from Lily, as expected; she’s the “normal” one, while Amanda is the deranged psycho. But the subtlety of Taylor-Joy’s performance emerges as the story progresses, and we begin to wonder just how deep Lily’s Machiavellian streak runs.

After all, Amanda has an excuse for her anti-social attitude and behavior ... but what, precisely, makes Lily tick? Is the whole thing a set-up from the start?

At the point we begin to wonder, though, matters get bogged down via a clumsy sidebar issue involving the local, slightly older neighborhood drug dealer. It’s a flat-out shock to see Anton Yelchin in this role, given that he died tragically back in June 2016; this marks his final big-screen appearance, Thoroughbreds actually having debuted more than a year ago, at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. (I can well appreciate its slow journey to mainstream release; I’m surprised Focus Features finally took the plunge.)

Inserting Yelchin’s scruffy, hilariously cocky Tim into this dynamic makes warped sense at first, but Finley doesn’t do anything with the character. He’s actually a bit of a red-herring cheat who — in hindsight — feels like a means of vamping for time.

And that, in a nutshell, is the major problem that infects Finley’s entire film. He gets effective performances from well-cast actors, but — much like the obscenely lavish but psychologically cold surroundings in which production designer Jeremy Woodward has placed them — they’re all dressed up, with nowhere to go.

We get neither joy nor guilty pleasure from watching these events unfold, because the characters — however well portrayed — are similarly flat and uninspiring. Yelchin’s appearance actually is a relief, of sorts; at least he displays the goofy, unapologetic amorality that Christian Slater brought to Heathers. Yelchin’s character doesn’t make sense, but at least the film comes to life when he’s on camera.

Finley deserves credit for atmospheric touches, and for coaxing character-precise performances from his actors. But he knows nothing about pacing, and his scripting and dialogue are strictly from hunger. It’d be instructive to see how he handles somebody else’s script, before passing final judgment, but thus far his future as a filmmaker looks doubtful.

Thoroughbreds, meanwhile, won’t even make it out of the starting gate.

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