You’ve heard about the ongoing Emo Night wars in Boston, you’ve listened to Brand New’s comeback album, and you’ve already busted out your checkered vans and cut your hair into a side-swoop. Emo’s back, baby, but it seems like the movies haven’t caught up just yet. Where’s this generation’s Donnie Darko or Teeth or Wristcutters: A Love Story? The truth is, it’s well on its way to you in the form of Thoroughbreds, a movie about two rich Connecticut teenagers — Amanda (Olivia Cooke), a sociopath, and Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), a socialite — who decide to murder the latter’s step-father (Paul Sparks) for “ruining her life.”
It premiered at Sundance this year to rapturous hosannas from genre geeks, and I’ve got to tell you: It’s the real deal. Make no mistake: Thoroughbreds is the movie that the emo revival deserves; full of pitch black-comedy, witty dialogue and brilliant visual puns that’ll crack you up once you start to notice them. It’s a hell of a debut for director Cory Finley, and a truly excellent way to begin this year’s Fantastic Fest.
Thoroughbreds’ greatest assets are its two young leads, without whom the whole film would not work on an satisfying level. Cooke, who made waves as the dying girl in Me and Earl and the Dying Girl a few years back, excels here, as she’s given a role full of weird pathos and endowed with personality and choice. It’s Amanda who comes up with the idea to murder Lily’s stepfather for all of his perceived slights and his attempt to send her to a boarding school for troubled teens, but it comes about in an interesting and organic way through her development. She’s dynamic in a way that film wouldn’t let her be, even though her flat sarcasm is much in a similar vein, but it’s tempered well with some excellent development on her part. She makes us believe that Amanda genuinely has never experienced a realistic emotion, and her deadpan slays while helping to illustrate her character. She has a great rapport with the similarly-cold Taylor-Joy, who provides much of the emotion and second-guessing to the plot, even though she might even be icier deep down inside than Cooke’s character could ever imagine.
Similarly, this film is a confirmation of Taylor-Joy’s brilliant talent after a string of crackerjack pictures (The Witch, and, hell, even Morgan if you’re looking at her and only her) and cements her as deserving of all the praise that someone like Elle Fanning gets for each and every role that she’s in. Their friendship and the revelations about each of them that come from their actions and conversations sustains the film throughout its 92-minute runtime.
There aren’t any scares in the traditional sense, but so much of the film is crafted to keep you steadily off balance. The central setting, Lily’s gargantuan mansion, full of barely-glimpsed servants and decorated with the kind of taste and flair reserved for Sirkian parlors, is overwhelmingly interesting, a visual buffet of northeastern bougieness. The oddness of the setting lends the film a lot of its sight gags, via a variety of oddly satisfying and fabulously creepy choices — for example, the murder of a horse is grimly discussed while Amanda plays with a large outdoor chess set, where she moves the knights whenever she talks about mounting the animal and violently stabbing it to death. In other ways, Finley’s direction is fascinatingly methodical and static — he allows his camera to linger all throughout the house and lets it hang on a bevy of understated curiosities, and helps to inform us what this film is actually about: Not the murder plot in and of itself, but the friendship. The sound design is truly unnerving, full of shrieking strings and random noise, and it definitely creeped a significant portion of my audience out. The constant noise of the stepfather’s rowing machine echoes throughout the home, groaning and moaning with the kind of ugly machine growl that, through its extensive use, makes you understand exactly why it’d drive someone to murder if forced to listen to it long enough.
Something about the class divisions and their respective trappings — the uber-rich mixing with the suburbanites in the suburbs and the cheap and tawdry figures, like the late Anton Yelchin’s upwardly mobile sex-offending drug-dealer — made me make the Emo connection, linking it to those earlier films, and I believe it stands well amongst that proud legacy. That might just be my own quirk, but there’s something effectively potent about these weird and aloof young women making their way through the world and figuring themselves out through sweet-and-tender-hooliganism made it feel like a refreshing tonic from my particular teenage dreams. Finley is an interesting talent to watch, and Thoroughbreds, whenever it hits, might just stir something within your blackened heart.