How much do you want to see a movie in which the sociopath is the most likable character? The answer may determine viewers' responses to Thoroughbreds, the feature debut of writer-director Cory Finley, which made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival last year.
In the tradition of classic noir, this tense, claustrophobic little film has a core of perversity. Most of its run time is devoted to two characters and a single setting — a palatial family home — yet Finley plays with these materials artfully, producing an alienating and exhilarating watch.
The sociopath in question is Amanda (Olivia Cooke), a teenage equestrian who is under heavy psychiatric care after having done something unspeakable to her thoroughbred horse. (Eventually, she will explain what and why.) On her mom's orders, she's come to the home of her estranged childhood friend, Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), for tutoring.
Lily is shocked when Amanda confides that she fakes emotions rather than feeling them. But there's more to Lily's own picture-perfect preppy façade than meets the eye. As the two bond over old movies, Lily confesses her seething hatred for her stepfather (Paul Sparks). Amanda casually suggests she bump him off.
It's the kernel of so many noir plots: A weak, broken person is tempted to commit a stupid murder for stupid reasons. As the tempter, Amanda plays the femme fatale role; she even teaches Lily how to cry on cue. But the power balance between the girls swings continually and sometimes dramatically, keeping us on our toes.
The actors are up to the challenge. Taylor-Joy, who made a memorable debut in The Witch, uses her sloe-eyed reserve to hint at the steel core in this fresh-faced ingénue. Cooke, who brought complexity to her underwritten roles in "Bates Motel" and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, comes into her own here with Amanda's cuttingly self-aware dialogue.
"It's not that I'm a bad person," she muses. "It's just that I have to try harder than everybody else to be good."
These two schemers find a fine foil in the late, talented Anton Yelchin as Tim, the unfortunate screwup they enlist to execute their plan.
While the script is talky — Finley based the film on his own play — it doesn't feel oppressively so, largely because the filmmakers know how to use their limited space. In one scene, the camera tracks through a sinister hallway just in time for us to catch an ominous line of dialogue from the television. In another, it pushes in on a static tableau while we strain to hear the real action happening off-screen.
Like Amanda, Thoroughbreds has a disturbingly self-aware quality; it feigns normalcy, tricking us into thinking we know what to expect, only to withhold it. Some viewers may feel there's not a lot of substance behind all these subterfuges; Lily's motive for murder is thin at best, and Amanda seems to goad her out of nothing but boredom and curiosity.
Still, by the end of the film, there's an odd poignancy to Amanda, the only character who doesn't delude herself about having a higher purpose. While Lily and Tim harbor adolescent fantasies of prestige and power, Amanda lives in the moment, calling out the bullshit of her elders and peers alike — Holden Caulfield rewritten as a sociopath but without the smugness of, say, Christian Slater's character in Heathers. While the film evokes plenty of comparisons, she's a thoroughbred creation that bodes well for Finley's filmmaking future.