3 (out of 4)
Cory Finley excels cautiously in first film Thoroughbreds, which debuted at last year's Sundance Film Festival and now finally is seeing a theatrical release through Focus Features. In his directorial debut Finley stirs up a rich genre mixture without ever getting overambitious. The film updates the satire of teenage nihilism that made Heathers an '80s cult touchstone while also succeeding as a sly, incredibly minimalist horror film wrapped in black comedy.
Anya Taylor-Joy, as she did for up-and-comer Robert Eggers in The Witch, proves she can sustain a fresh writer-director’s new age thrills and even elevate the results with her composed acting talents. Like Eggers' film Thoroughbreds unfortunately includes a jarring score that serves to remind you too often that you’re watching something spooky – The Witch can live with the ambiance given its obviously grim atmosphere but Finley's film could have done with a little more irony or tonal ambiguity. The film's many narrative sidesteps shouldn't be anticipated with creepy cues, but rather the music should have embraced the film's core cavalier rebelliousness more fully.
After reforming their childhood friendship Amanda (Olivia Cooke aka the dying girl in Me and Earl [a Sundance 2015 darling]) and Lily (Joy) form a pair of opposite yet similarly disassociated teens, the first brutally honest, emotionless and the other more uptight and proper. However, desperately seeking to oust her wicked stepfather via a convoluted murder scheme, Joy hopes to exploit drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin in his final, brief but excellent performance) to keep her and Amanda's hands clean in their scheme.
Giving rise to cinematic moments of sardonic humor, coy editing and clever (but never knowingly, annoyingly clever) back and forth, Thoroughbreds keeps you on your toes and entertains with ease as it plays only so loose with reality. The writing has some manner of wit, insight and thematic depth throughout all navigated by well-developed characters.
It almost feels too short, but it's not an insult to say I wish Thoroughbreds went on for another twenty minutes at least. For as much as it may lean on recognizable tropes, Finley's first is wisely sparing and fairly unconventional.
To keep it brief...