I had heard Thoroughbreds was Anton Yelchin’s final on-screen performance prior to his tragic death almost two years ago and that it was a “dark comedy.” I entered the movie theater, however, with little to no expectations or knowledge of the film’s actual plot.
Thoroughbreds appears to occupy the same universe as J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and the novels of Bret Easton Ellis. The film opens with a quiet, strange girl and her horse. This girl turns out to be Amanda (Olivia Cooke), a young woman with piercing eyes and no emotions. Director Cory Finley utilizes Erik Friedlander’s delightfully creepy and percussive score to punctuate every scene of the wealthy 1% walking around a sunny and floral Connecticut. Amanda stands out among the Rolls Royce cars, tennis courts, and perfectly manicured lawns because she does not appear to enjoy any of it.
Amanda is being tutored by Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy in yet another creepy role), a long time childhood friend who she appears to resent. But, even making the claim that Amanda “resents” anyone at all would be, perhaps, a move too far on my part. Amanda makes the bold claim to Lily that she does not “feel emotion.”
“Like, you’re numb?” Lily asks.
“No. I don’t feel…things,” responds Amanda as she stares sleepily at her tutor.
Lily wants to appear as if she has it all together. She lives in a palatial home with her absent mother and her arrogant, vindictive stepfather (Paul Sparks). She claims to attend a top-notch boarding school and boasts to Amanda about her current internship. Lily is being paid by Amanda’s mom to tutor her but refuses the money because something about Amanda intrigues her.
The girls encounter Mark, Lily’s stepdad, in a series of awkward and hilarious moments that unveil a deep hatred between the girls and a supremely wealthy and entitled asshole.
Lily and Amanda develop a strange but powerful bond that leads them to an encounter with Tim (Anton Yelchin), an eccentric twenty-something who works in a nursing home, sells drugs to minors, and is a registered sex offender. Their conversations with Tim will lead them to make decisions that drive a full on murder plot.
Finley’s film is hilarious but it is truly dark. It feels like the smart lovechild of Jonathan Demme and early M. Night Shyamalan. The cinematography by Lyle Vincent, who filmed the equally creepy films of Ana Lily Amirpour, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and The Bad Batch, is reminiscent of the work the great Tak Fujimoto did in The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, and Signs.
Finley’s film, although clearly satirical and deeply exaggerated, reminded me of something very important: Some of the deepest insight into the mundane human dynamic comes from those experiencing mental illness and addiction. Amanda, Lily, and Tim are all anti-hero characters who inhabit fictional literary worlds, but they also exist in the real world, too.
Critics of The Catcher in the Rye and Less Than Zero claim that those stories depict spoiled, wealthy kids who are just bored and need to experience the true suffering of life. It is possible, however, for rich kids to suffer simply because they are suffering. Amanda and Lily are both suffering from serious emotional trauma and no, they aren’t just bored kids. They are smart, sassy, funny, horny, and deeply disturbed. When you look at their world, full of abusive, power-hungry adults with too much money, who can really blame them for wanting to kill someone?
Anton Yelchin, may he rest in peace, died in a freak accident involving a vehicle on June 19, 2016. He was only twenty-seven years old when he died. Thoroughbreds reminds us that he was an on-screen gem and he had so much left to give. His role as Tim the drug dealer is a worthy final performance. You’ll be missed, Anton.-Joey Armstrong