After work on Thursday, a bit hopped up on caffeine, I got on the subway and made my way to the Alamo Drafthouse and sat down to watch Thoroughbreds, ordering some chips and a Moscow Mule. A crisp hour and a half later I stumbled out of an almost fugue. What had I just seen? I wasn’t totally sure. All I knew was I was hooked throughout the entirety of the incredibly alien film, but I couldn’t tell if it was a fascination born of confusion, disgust, or enamorment. So, on Friday as a friend and I were making plans I asked him if he wanted to go see Thoroughbreds, because I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie and I was hoping a second screening would clarify my thoughts. Yet, again, I walked out of the movie feeling confused and compelled and wanting to see it again. Which, of course, is exactly how the movie wants you to feel.
It’s tough to summarize Thoroughbreds, not because there’s too much plot but rather because the movie is slow to dole out information and I don’t want to ruin anything. Primarily it focuses on two estranged childhood friends, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke), as they begin to reconnect following an gruesome incident they talk circles around for the first half of the film. It is late spring/early summer and Lily has returned from the boarding school she attends, having finished her class work as early as March. Hanging out one night Amanda suggests they kill Lily’s stepfather, whom Lily hates, and to Lily’s credit she rejects the idea for at least a tiny bit.
The movie isn’t really about the murder plot, but instead on the relationship between these two girls, one who claims to not feel anything but who has practiced imitating other people, and one who has spent their life reigning in their feelings in an effort to be proper and polite. The acting in the first scene is so sterile I thought it was a directorial choice – there are some directors who are adept at getting a wide spread of actors to act the same way (Wes Anderson, John Carpenter). But in truth Thoroughbreds falls somewhere in between: the actors give extremely sparse performances while still giving their characters some serious depth – and no one does it better than the two leads (they are essentially the whole movie, no matter how much the marketing decided to focus on Yelchin).
The whole movie is sparse. Every shot and sound feels like a meticulous choice. Or maybe focused is the right word. By stripping away extras we are forced to focus particularly on what’s left. The sound of the film is reminiscent of a western almost: limited and magnified, so we can hear when people swallow, when a neck snaps, and especially when a rowing machine reverberates around the house.
The cinematography is similarly limited and magnified. The camera gets close to its subjects and shallow, which gives the leads an even more alien look. A particularly compelling shot focuses on half a face pressed to a bed, feigning sleep, until the one eye you can see flies open and we hold on that for a long while. It’s disorienting and I was happy to hear my friend say in reference to the shot “what even is an eye?” totally unprompted as we walked out of the theater. I am not alone in finding the shot arresting.
The other real noticeable cinematic trick is the long takes, which generally I find unnecessarily showy but that generally worked here. They were used two significant ways, both of which I appreciated: first they were used to lay out Lily’s house for us, causing it to feel dangerous and labyrinthian while simultaneously allowing us some sense of the geography of it. Secondly, the camera would occasionally hold on someone to show time passing. When Lily goes underwater to see how long she can hold her breath the camera remains above water with Amanda. Nothing happens. Seconds tick by and we grow more and more anxious. Why isn’t anything happening? And, of course, sound and actionless long takes combine for the truly impressive climax.
It’s not a perfect film. The editing, especially at the beginning, feels too cut on dialogue, and I’m honestly still not totally sure how Anton Yelchin figures into more general themes the movie is playing with (though his inclusion doesn’t feel like a mistake). But overall it’s made with a distinct and exact voice which I would appreciate even if it was a total mess. Thankfully, it isn’t. Maybe it, like it’s protagonists, is a bit of a glossy trick without any truly deep substance, but as Lily says of Amanda, the flick is off-putting enough to fascinate.
I give Thoroughbreds 9.5 giant chess sets out of 10 chill pairs of sunglasses.
- Anton Yelchin isn’t in much of the movie (seriously why is he in the marketing so much?) but he is very very good in his scenes.
- As with Ingrid Goes West, an additional thrill of Thoroughbreds is it feels like a movie almost anyone could make. With all of six actors, no CGI, and essentially one location the budget probably wasn’t horribly astronomically impossible to imagine. That is impressive in its own right.
- Shout out to the guy sitting next to me at Alamo who also got an Ithaca Flower Power. Also shout out to Ithaca Flower Power.