I’ve talked a lot in the past about the wave of indie horror films that have come to dominate that genre, but the essential aspects of those films aren’t necessarily restricted to horror. While the slow pace, long and beautiful shots, and contemplative character studies predate that boom with the countless interchangeable indie dramas of the mid to late-2000s, there’s a distinct feel to them that feels ripe for the picking in other genres (the way they have long stolen from horror).
Thoroughbreds certainly has all the basics of one of those indie horror films. It’s in no rush though it’s plot or individual scenes, it looks real pretty, has a murderous sociopath at the center of the film, plenty of evidence for a “humans are the real monsters” argument, sparse score with dabblings in classical music, and Anna Taylor-Joy (The Witch which is as perfect of an example of the subgenre for better or worse as there is and Split). Its plot however pulls from the classic thriller plotline of two people scheming against an asshole who mistreats one of them (bonus points awarded here for the positions being filled by two women and a man respectively) who hire a third to take care of him. In the end though, neither genre really describes the film as it mostly lacks any scenes of horror and the thrills are few and far between. In fact, any neat genre label eludes it as it’s a black comedy which keeps the laughs restrained (but certainly there) and taboos largely unchallenged. There’s the occasional hint of something between the two women which would populate a thriller (erotic or not), but it almost entirely resists even going for the easy sexual subtext the matter lends itself to. I can’t even call it a drama as it largely approaches, then swerves away from dramatic moments, keeping its characters at arm’s length.
I have criticized plenty of films of that last bit, but where Thoroughbreds differentiates itself is that such a thing doesn’t feel like an artistic choice, one meant to act as subtle satire, nor does it feel as if it gets in the way of us knowing the characters. I’m not going to pretend they are all that original, but they do feel completely fleshed out. The aforementioned murderous sociopath (not that the film calls her that) is played to perfection here by the frequently underused Olivia Cooke but the film avoids several traps these films usually fall into. There’s no Dexter style consistent walking back of her lack of feelings nor is she an evil mastermind, she’s an able mimic of human emotions who doesn’t work hard enough to fit in, but generally maintains a moral compass nonetheless, albeit one not necessarily aligned with others. Detached but honest about who she is and largely accepting of her position in life.
Instead, it is the other upper-class girl payed by Taylor-Joy which the film spends more time playing around with. Similarly detached but still very much a feeling creature in the standard rich girl set up of being well educated with a jerk of a step-father (played by character actor Paul Sparks as someone who’s hardly a great husband to her mom either), the film never plays tricks with us in terms of what she is feeling or what is really going on, it lays everything out in the open (quietly, but it’s there) and lets her try to discover herself despite the fact that she is probably the last person to figure it out and no less of a mimic playacting than Cooke’s character. The film may start off focusing on Cooke and its chapter divided structure hinting that it is interested in shifting perspectives, but it’s clear she is the true protagonist of the film, the characters around her merely serving her story and generally knowledgeable about that as well.
I haven’t mentioned Anton Yelchin, whose untimely death renders this as his last film to see release (well not technically the last since it first debuted way back at Sundance 2017), who plays the seedy character they recruit here, but his role is tertiary at best. It’s still a compelling portrayal of a statutory rapist upwardly mobile (if idiotic) drug dealer and the liveliest person here, but without wishing to spoil, his plot thankfully doesn’t feel as stale as it could have been based on how overused it is. It’s also thankfully not one of those roles that feels retroactively tragic, as if the filmmakers knew what was going to happen to him which is a nice relief.
The film as a whole could be summed up though as better than it could have been. Writer-director Cory Finley’s debut in both roles is confident that the audience doesn’t need to be baby-ed and doesn’t play up the style with all its long, stately takes and slow zooms at the expense of the substance. The film is slow, but it never feels overbearing as there’s consistent plot momentum and character development to make every scene feel it is essential. It’s capable of both coldness and also of feeling very human. It’s a fantastic film and while I doubt it has any chance of being one, one that should be receiving heavy awards attention at the end of the year.