As a general rule, there are few things that I despise more than, during the first few months of the year, seeing a trailer loudly proclaim: (in the gravelly timbre of the trailer-man) “Critics are raving: Blah-Blah: the Blah-Blahening is the best film of the year…” For some reason I cannot quite nail down, I have always resented it. Maybe it’s because if it’s only March, then surely there haven’t been enough movies for it to be a fair competition. Maybe it’s because most of the movies about which the mysterious “critics” seem to be raving are typically to be seen in the $5.00 bin at your nearest Wal-Mart within three months.
Regardless of the reasoning behind my passionate disdain for this trend, I cannot stop my eyes from rolling every time I hear it. However, for all of my fervent resistance, I come to you in the grand tradition of becoming that which you hate most, to deliver a message: Thoroughbreds is the best movie of the year.
Lily and Amanda are two upper-class teens who could not possibly be more different. Lily appears to be at least half porcelain and the image of well-bred modern American youth. Amanda, though sharing the same social strata at Lily, is made fun of at parties and has no friends to speak of: a result of her expulsion from school in the wake of her horse’s death by her own hands. Certainly of more interest, though, is the fact that Amanda can feel nothing. No happiness, no sadness, no emotions of any kind.
The duo reignites their friendship after many years, and thus our plot begins. Lily, it would seem, has a terrible dislike for her stepfather, and wants to see him removed from her life. When, during a conversation, Amanda casually asks whether or not she had ever considered just killing him, a plan begins to take shape. Going any farther into the plot would involve spoiling a narrative that is delightfully tricky to predict, so I’ll take the liberty of sparing you that disservice.
One of the things that makes Thoroughbreds such a pleasure to watch is its steadfast refusal to conform to the expectations of the audience and its knack for bucking the tropes that usually weigh thrillers like this down. A scenario is set up, proceeds in a way that convinces you that one thing will happen, and then something completely different occurs. This pattern is replicated throughout the entire runtime so well that it’s misleading to even call it a pattern. It’s a much-needed breath of fresh air after Red Sparrow and Annihilation to see a film that is willing to play with my assumptions and perspective.
This is made even more impressive by the almost mathematical way in which the film is shot. Each frame is steady and never wavers. Even extended takes involving twists, turns, and full rotations never look handheld. The focus of a shot will be set to some vacant point in the frame, and action will occur until that space is finally occupied by a character’s face, but the focus never pulls to encompass the rest of the events. Characters spend lengthy conversations acting with their backs to the lens, as if it does not exist. Combining this with the Thoroughbreds’ “all jump cuts, all the time” editing style, the resulting film feels sturdy and foundational in all aspects of its execution.
Similarly, performances are stellar from every cast member. Anya Taylor-Joy’s face is astoundingly expressive even while remaining largely reserved, and hints at some of the unexplored depths of her character. Olivia Cooke is terrific as well, and proves that acting emotionless and stoic can be downright thrilling if executed properly. Paul Sparks, who is most notable in my mind for playing the genuinely wretched character of Thomas Yates in House of Cards, manages to nail the part of suburban dick-dad. Additionally, the late Anton Yelchin, in his final role, lights up the screen every time he’s on it. He plays off of Taylor-Joy and Cooke phenomenally, and brings a wonderful humanity to a character who could easily have been forgettable and cartoonish in less skilled hands.
The skilled hands of which I speak belong as much to Yelchin as they do Writer and first-time Director Cory Finley. Finley, who only has three credits to his name thus far, guides this film with the steady hand of a seasoned veteran, and will undoubtedly be worth watching in the years to come.
In addition to his outstanding direction, it would seem that Mr. Finley is quite adept with a pen as well. His script is taut and efficient, with few (if any) frivolous lines, let alone scenes. The screenplay also finds that sweet spot between tense and laugh-out-loud funny, and both work equally well. Here is yet another person who should teach Rian Johnson how to make a balanced movie.
Of equal merit in the wake of Red Sparrow is Thoroughbreds’ approach to violence and gore. The filmmakers seemed to approach this aspect with the understanding that the threat and implication of violence are often more impactful than its actual presence. There is violence in the film, but it feels necessary to bring the narrative through its natural beats and eventually, to its conclusion. This is in stark contrast to Red Sparrow, which was so over the top and severe with its moments of aggression that it ended up drowning in its own blood.
For all of the visual style and stellar performances, everything would have been for naught had the story been underwhelming (as in the case of Annihilation… minus the stellar performances). Not only is the immediate narrative engaging and entertaining, but also there is a subtextual thread that deals with everything from teen malaise to personal identity to the American Dream, and somehow none of it feels forced. This might be because Thoroughbreds has no aspirations to be a great thinking piece or to provide any sort of conclusive dissection these issues, although I imagine it will stay with me for some time to come. I’m very much looking forward to seeing it again so I can dig further into the more subtle character moments and the implications of the conclusion.
When I sat down to see Thoroughbreds, I can honestly say that I had no expectations. The trailer was funny and well edited, so I figured it would be a pleasant alternative to seeing A Wrinkle in Time, which looks like a bloated CGI nightmare. Instead of a forgettable diversion, Thoroughbreds revealed itself to be a tight, intelligent and hysterical thriller with a healthy dose of style. If you’re looking for another option than seeing Black Panther for the third time or seeing Red Sparrow even once, then do yourself a favor; go see Thoroughbreds. Who knows for how long it’ll stay the best film of the year, but for the time being it is well deserving of the title.