Thoroughbreds is a movie about...teenage psychopaths? Amanda is a clear-as-day sociopath who needs a new therapist. She's never had feelings or emotions, learning her entire life to fake them, and convincingly so, but nonetheless giving off creepy vibes to those around her. After an incident with her horse leaves her more isolated than usual, her mother sets her up with an old childhood friend for tutoring. Enter Lily, a charming and initially likeable girl, pretty and clearly smart, but harbours a vindictive, manipulative, and nihilistic core beneath the facade of have-it-all. After a handful of "playdates", the girls hatch a plan to murder Lily's stepfather, dragging local wash-up Tim into the plot.
The film starts off leaning heavily into its comedic tone, juxtaposing the two girls and their personalities off against one another. Many a laugh was found in digging into a loner with no emotions being so plainly to the point, with a girl who's spent her entire life harbouring grudges and ill-intent. Both the matter-of-fact reactions from Amanda, and the new found freedom of honesty without consequence for Lily, creates an enticing dynamic between the two of them. At some point around the halfway mark, the movie loses this tone almost entirely.
While it never feels like it gets particularly darker, the seriousness does start to creep in. We start questioning who the real monster of the story is. The stepfather, Mark, comes off as a creepy, controlling a**hole initially, but it soon becomes apparent that we're only seeing him through the eyes of nihilistic Lily who hates his guts. We start seeing small hints that maybe the family dynamic isn't as it first seems. Maybe Mark is actually just a nice guy forced into living with a psychopathic teenage girl? Furthermore, maybe the sociopath who doesn't have emotions is actually the most well-intended character of the lot, as it comes to light that she only killed her horse out of mercy; to put the creature out of its misery. Her methods were unsavoury, but she did the best with what she had. Amanda clearly cares for Lily, saving her from drowning, attempting to help her with her stepfather situation, and being emotional support for her when she needs it most. She doesn't always go about things the right way, thanks to lacking those human emotions, but the care and good-intent comes through nonetheless.
Acting is pretty great across the board. Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy prove true equals, able to play off each other perfectly without missing a beat. Cooke manages to give the emotionless Amanda something for us as the audience to grab hold of and sympathise with. Taylor-Joy on the other hand manages that air of affluence to cover her character's more detestable traits brilliantly, making her initially likeable, but able to make the transition to downright horrible quick and easy. Paul Sparks is fantastically reserved as Mark, never leaning one way or the other in his portrayal, leaving interpretations open as to whether Mark actually earned his fate or not. And finally Anton Yelchin's final performance pales in comparison to some of his others, but it's not a bad way to go out. His tragic Tim is just as morally ambiguous as everyone else, but he gives him an edge that makes him lean more towards the likeable side. Poor guy just got dragged in way over his head, and his ambitious tough-guy persona is clearly just a facade.
But honestly the single most notable thing about Thoroughbreds is its sound design. Every scene oozes with delectable sound design that breaths life into the settings, tension into the atmospheres, and offers a climax quite unlike any other. The film opens with Amanda wondering around a large country manor, while the soundtrack just offers a sparse and foreboding percussion pulse, instantly setting a dark and intriguing tone. This percussion-driven soundtrack permeates through every sequence, punctuated by long, drawn-out silences. But even the sound design of a rowing machine on the first floor heard from below, or of stone chess pieces being moved around and meticulously placed, or the lingering of the camera on a laptop as we hear Lily brush her teeth waiting for the sound of a message notification, and her horrified expression as more message notifications come through. This isn't so much a movie that subscribes to 'show don't tell', but one that eschews showing entirely, merely giving you the sound of it and letting you infer from there. The fact the film's climax is as effective as it is when it's essentially just a ten-minute shot of a girl sleeping on the sofa speaks volumes to the sound design team at work.
And yet amid all this praise and analysis, I didn't love Thoroughbreds. It's a fine movie, but it lacks a real hook. It gets close in the first half with the comedic dynamic between Amanda and Lily as they verbally spar, but once that simmers away, we're left with a fairly dull and unremarkable story of teenage psychopaths plotting murder. While the sound design of that final climax is astounding, it lacks that climatic feeling by its nature, and its following coda feels unearned and unsatisfying. I give Thoroughbreds a palatable 7/10, even if just for the soundtrack and sound design.