And thus we come into the well-groomed Connecticut neighborhood of Thoroughbreds, Cory Finley's film debut. Finley comes from the stage, and it shows. Not only because of his on-the-nose, tart dialogue, but because of his visuals. Usually when playwrights first take the camera helm (like Malcolm McDonagh), we get a feeling of constriction and a sense that this would be better as a one-room play. Finley, on the other hand, literally directs us to every detail he wants us to see. When Amanda first walks into Lily's stepdad Mark's study, we see a framed picture of him in full kendo regalia in all seriousness and know that Finley wants us to realize: Ah...this guy is a douche.
It's these details that make Thoroughbreds so visually appealing, like the opening of Hitchcock's Vertigo where we see all the details without having to hear the exposition. When Finley zooms in on details, we see the perfectly manicured nails of Lily marred by the hints of a hangnail, and later the chewed down ones of Anton Yelchin's low level drug dealer. It's a controlled environment. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night) amplifies the effect by following characters with a Steadicam, making the glide precise even as it meanders a maze of the girls' twisted intents.
There's a similar exactness to the sound design, which is excellent from the first draw of the car up to the front steps, to the ticking of the clock, and when Lily taps her pen repeatedly on the table. Every use of sound, or the minimal soundtrack that is akin to Taiko drumming, amps up the tension. And sometimes it's the lack of sound that does it, as in a particularly fraught sequence where you're just waiting for the silence to break.
Taylor-Joy and Cooke are pitch-perfect for their respective roles, each delivering chilling character reveals, albeit in different ways. Cooke's deadpan delivery could have been assisted better with some more skillful editing, but rarely does she need it as a prop. And Taylor-Joy gives nuance to every shadow at every chapter's closure in the story, making you genuinely wonder how it will all turn out.
Lily is a girl that refuses to suffer consequences: her maid immediately picks up the trash she leaves behind, she blames an indiscretion at school on extenuating circumstances, and she offers up ideas for approval, not judgment. What happens when she is mixed with a girl who puts forth independent ideas of morality and concurrently is incapable of giving judgment is the force behind Finley's feature.
Finley's feature emphasizes the thoroughbred metaphor a little too strongly at times, and should have a little more fun with itself. I'm not entirely certain that the last scene is necessary either. However, other than that, it's a solid debut from someone who is just as good as directing the camera as he is in parrying words. His use of sound to tell a story is masterful. Last but not least, this is Anton Yelchin's final film, and there's something more than a little gut-wrenching for both him and his character as he utters a desperate claim to wait until they can see where he'll be in "five to ten years" -- he'll be big, you'll see. Although his turn in this film is brief, his talent is not. If only his words were true.