If the past few months have taught us anything, it’s that not giving a shit about other human beings is the best way to get ahead in life. Empathy is a weakness. It’s a virtue, of course — and hopefully part of our natural condition — but it’s also a weakness. Empathy is one of the few things that money can’t buy, and the only thing that the rich can’t afford. “Thoroughbred,” Cory Finley’s delightfully vicious and mind-bogglingly confident first feature, is a pitch-black comedy about the danger of being around people of privilege when they first start to figure that out.
Set in the affluent suburbs of Connecticut (the word “Greenwich” is somehow never spoken), “Thoroughbred” unfolds like “American Psycho” meets “Heathers” as directed by a young and extremely class-conscious Park Chan-wook. Picking up where “Equus” left off, the story begins as a teenage girl named Amanda (Olivia Cooke) returns to society after euthanizing her family’s horse with savage indifference. The incident seems to have caused a bit of a stir amongst the local kids, but it’s hardly out of character for the pretty high school senior, who is all but incapable of experiencing human emotion and vows to “Steve Jobs her way through life.” She doesn’t have Asperger’s or borderline personality disorder — she’s been tested for both — she just can’t feel anything. “It doesn’t mean I’m a bad person,” Amanda explains at one point, “It just means that I have to try harder than everyone else to be good.” And try she does, training herself to cry on cue and practicing her best fake smile every time she walks past a mirror.
That sociopathic coldness, however, makes Amanda the ideal foil for her estranged childhood friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy, every bit as captivating here as she was in “The Witch”). A prim and proper type who appears to feel everything a bit too intensely, Lily is struggling to survive life at home with her mom’s new husband (Paul Sparks), an obnoxious — but obscenely loaded — Vineyard Vines mannequin who’s been a real thorn in her side ever since she got kicked out of Andover for plagiarizing an essay. When the two girls are reunited for a playdate at Lily’s palatial estate, it isn’t long before the WASPy princess realizes that she can confess anything to the apathetic Amanda without judgement. Even her fantasies of murdering her stepfather.
“Thoroughbred” is a dark and pointed piece of work that depends on the delicacy with which someone can thread the needle between Hitchcockian suspense and capitalistic venom, and Finley — adapting his own play to the screen — demonstrates a cinematic authority that eludes many filmmakers who have worked in the medium for decades. The vast majority of Finley’s debut may be confined to Lily’s house, but if his snappy and contained script betrays the project’s theatrical origins, his direction doesn’t. Denzel Washington could learn something from how this rookie sees limited space with the clarity and nuance of a blueprint, using his richly expressive camera to carve the mansion’s interior into a Tetris game of tracking shots and dolly moves (a hat tip to “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” cinematographer Lyle Vincent for the assist). With every expertly tuned focus rack — and there are a lot of them — it feels as though Finley is squinting to see his characters a little bit better than he did before.
Not that his cast doesn’t give him plenty of help in that regard. Cooke, whose warmly layered sullenness was so integral to the success of “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” is brilliant with a blank stare — she can do more with a brief deadpan than most actors can with a lengthy monologue, and the movie never lets her cheat away from the character’s exaggerated lack of affect. Taylor-Joy, whose role is more subdued but ultimately more sadistic, confirms her status as one of the world’s best young actors. While Finley gives her no shortage of words to steel her way through, Taylor-Joy wears the film on her face; watch closely and you can practically see her moral insulation being stripped away. The more that Finley’s direction convinces us that Lily’s house is large enough to contain entire worlds, the more that Taylor-Joy’s performance reveals a young woman who doesn’t need to care about anyone living outside of its walls.
Speaking of, the most memorable performance belongs to the late Anton Yelchin, who — in the final role that he filmed before his tragic death last summer — reminds us of the talent that he took with him. Even though his character is severely underwritten, Yelchin brings a bottomless reservoir of pathos to the part of Tim, the low-rent drug dealer who Lily and Amanda try to blackmail into committing the murder for them. He only appears in a handful of scenes, but Tim feels like a real person in every one of them; a victim of capitalism’s cold shoulder, he eventually inspires far more sympathy than the film’s twin heroines are able to offer. In a world where the wealthy treat other people like they’re horses, someone has to get ridden into the ground.
But Tim’s sad lot in life doesn’t excuse how little of him we get to see. Needlessly divided into chapters that promise a more ambitious narrative than Finley is prepared to tell, “Thoroughbred” — despite the assuredness of its telling — comes to an abrupt end just when it seems to be searching for another gear. The movie prepares a rare feast from its limited ingredients, but when the end credits arrive with a final blast of Erik Friedlander’s wonderfully wonky score, it’s hard not to feel as though Finley has left far too much meat on the bone. After watching his tense and tightly coiled debut, here’s hoping it isn’t long before he comes back for seconds.
“Thoroughbred” premiered in the NEXT section of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. Focus Features will release it later this year.