Olivia Cooke And Cast Shine In Dark "Thoroughbreds"

In 1996, silver screen psychos Billy Loomis and Stu Macher famously elucidated their crimes via horror movie quotes – the ultimate genre in-joke. Twenty years and innumerable self-aware slashers later, Billy and Stu’s touchstones would go without saying. To wit, the would-be murderesses that headline playwright Cory Finley’s mightily impressive film debut “Thoroughbreds.”

While not strictly horror, the picture – which tells the story of two upper crust teenage girls plotting the death of one’s cruel stepfather – comes with inescapable echoes of “Psycho” and the films “Psycho” inspired; influences that Finley only tacitly acknowledges. He mostly seals his characters off from pop culture and tellingly keeps the violence off screen, establishing time and again that his subjects are of a new generation of movie killers.

Forget the film’s posters, which tout enthusiastic festival quotes from critics pinning it as a cross between twentieth-century satires “American Psycho” and “Heathers.” Aside from some obvious commentary on the high society its characters occupy, “Thoroughbreds” – perhaps best categorized as a psychological thriller – isn’t all that satiric, its dark humor mostly a side effect of its uncanny examination of the relationship between emotion and morality.

Coincidentally, “Bates Motel” actor Olivia Cooke stars, turning in a brilliant performance as Amanda, one of the aforementioned high school students.

We learn early on that Amanda’s been misdiagnosed with several emotional disorders, leaving her a knowing, walking cadaver-in-waiting. She feels nothing, so unpopular at school that her mother pays her former best friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) to spend time with her under the guise of tutoring.

While Amanda might be left to unnervingly practice human emotions in front of mirrors, she can read everyone else like a book. She quickly picks up on Lily’s unspoken hatred for her wealthy, hostile stepfather (Paul Sparks) and begins to wax philosophical about the meaninglessness of life – his life, to be exact. A vague plan for his death is hatched, but not before Finley calls on the late actor Anton Yelchin (“Green Room”) in his final performance. He plays a bottom-feeding drug dealer – and, if the girls have their way, a fledgling hitman – named Tim.

With more screen time Yelchin might have run away with the film. As it stands, his fairly brief but magnificent presence is a stinging reminder of the talent lost with his tragic death. He was already great, but he was going to be one of the greats, as seen here in a delightfully amoral turn as a slimy twenty-something who easily rationalizes selling drugs to teens.

Finley gets terrific performances from Yelchin, Cooke, and Taylor-Joy all, which mostly papers over how much he stretches to get his dead simple narrative to feature length. Throw in a compelling ambient score and the film’s second act sag isn’t much of a problem.

The final minutes of “Thoroughbreds” are uncharacteristically clunky but also add fascinating dimension to its characters, leaving the whole on the precipice of greatness. The film doesn’t bear the same thrilling impact as “Psycho” or “Scream,” nor will its box office receipts. But in delineating a new era of thinking, feeling (or in Amanda’s case, unfeeling), knife-wielding big screen killers, Cory Finley does something even harder: he makes us think.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: March 9, 2018
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Cory Finley
Screenwriter: Cory Finley
Starring: Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks
MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing behavior, bloody images, language, sexual references, and some drug content)