Thoroughbreds: a murderous upper-class gambit from Anya Taylor-Joy

Two school friends reconnect over their lack of empathy and hatch a deadly plan in this marvellous 2017 thriller

• Thoroughbreds is streaming in Australia on Netflix. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here

You might be forgiven for skipping past Thoroughbreds in your Netflix recommendations. With a fairly nondescript title and an anodyne poster image, it appears to be about something dull like horse racing. But give it a chance and you’ll discover a dark and nihilistic nightmare, suggesting that casual murder is as prevalent among the wealthy as hedge funds and country clubs.

Amanda (Olivia Cooke) and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) are estranged childhood friends, brought together under the pretext of a tutoring job, which, it quickly transpires, was set up by Amanda’s mother to encourage her daughter to socialise. Before long, the tutoring gig serves its purpose, giving way to a genuine bond as the two old friends reconnect.

Amanda, however, is awaiting trial for animal cruelty: in a grisly show of mercy, she euthanised a horse and became a social pariah as a consequence. She confides to Lily that she is unable to feel any emotion. Her choice of confidante is a judicious one as Lily also holds little regard for society’s rules, frequently bending the truth and showing no remorse when she is caught out.

Lily lives with her mother and deeply unpleasant stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks). Her relationship with him is one of low-key hostility and barely sustained tolerance. Mark has a short fuse, but is mostly smug and passive aggressive, never letting Lily forget whose house she lives in. Lily is more direct, drinking Mark’s expensive wine and sabotaging his beloved bike. Their repeated clashes prompt Lily and Amanda to conclude that the only logical course of action here is murder. So in the classic Hitchcock tradition, they plot a motive-free, alibi-reliant demise and recruit the services of local drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin) to help out.

Anya Taylor Joy, Anton Yelchin and Olivia Cooke in Thoroughbreds.
Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin and Olivia Cooke. Photograph: Allstar/Focus Features

Dynamite performances from Cooke and Taylor-Joy are the key to Thoroughbreds’ success. Originally envisioned as a play, much of the film’s first half is simply Amanda and Lily becoming reacquainted and demanding of each other an honesty they withhold from the rest of the world. The fact this honesty manifests in such a dark perspective, taking no issue with equicide, homicide or step-patricide, makes it completely engrossing.

Yelchin is also fantastic, cutting a greasy and dishevelled figure, like he just got dragged through a hedge. Thoroughbreds was one of Yelchin’s final performances before his tragic death in 2016, and he excels at making Tim both utterly skeevy, yet somehow sympathetic. Sure, he might be about to kill a stranger for a wad of cash, but he’s out of his depth and blissfully unaware of how seriously he underestimated his new acquaintances.

Erik Friedlander’s percussive, syncopated score is also worthy of mention. The intense drumming and screeching strings conjure an ominous atmosphere that unnerves and bolsters the edgy tone.

Despite Thoroughbreds horsey motif, the title also applies to Amanda and Lily’s privileged lifestyle. There’s nothing new, of course, in equating high society and the pursuit of capital with immorality: Mark Achbar and Jennifer Abbott’s 2003 documentary, The Corporation, suggested the attributes needed to succeed in business are the same traits as those found in a psychopath, while Brian Yuzna’s body horror classic Society and John Carpenter’s paranoid masterpiece They Live both suggest an inherent lack of humanity in the wealthy elite (in this case, because they’re aliens). However it’s always refreshing to see a new take on the idea, and Thoroughbreds asserts that detachment from “real life” goes hand in hand with murder: after all, Amanda’s clinical reasoning for killing Mark is simply that it’s a cost/benefit exercise.

Thoroughbreds’ marketing heralds it as a dark comedy, but I’d argue that is misleading. If anything, Thoroughbreds is a psychological thriller, although it doesn’t fit neatly in any box. Effectively directed by Cory Finley, it’s a character-driven film with a dark centre, which, coupled with a bit of well-calibrated misdirection, makes it unpredictable and utterly compelling throughout.


Adam Fleet

The GuardianTramp

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