The character of Amanda provides Thoroughbreds with its clearest example of characters moving through the world as if. She’s learned to a great actor, faking smiles and tears like a young Brando, though Brando never took a knife to a crippled horse as a form of botched euthanasia. Where Lily is panicking over a reasonable reaction to a problem, Amanda can’t be bothered with anything, including her looming sentencing over the aforementioned animal cruelty. Before we hear Amanda speak, we see her look in a mirror and toss off a beaming smile before dropping it and returning to her default disinterest. An early discussion between her and Lily, in which Amanda showcases her skill at making herself cry, means that every emotion going forward is up for grabs, a potential shell game where the performative aspect of each character may or may not be in play. Of course, this is a movie, so every emotion, even in an earnest film, is calculated and calibrated, but for Thoroughbreds to so aggressively call attention to that fact risks breakage. To its great credit, the meta wormhole is only apparent afterwards thanks to the immersive performances and Finley’s exacting direction.
Amanda is past caring what people think of her, and she has no problem stating her motives, however unflattering they may be. Lily very much cares about appearances, and Finley and Taylor-Joy have crafted a highly specific look for the character. Where Amanda wears flannel and loose clothing, Lily is immaculately primped and prepared with nothing out of place. Taylor-Joy’s huge eyes and long neck are often accentuated, both of which make her look more innocent than she is. She shares a deadened moral life with Amanda, but she still wants to be a part of the world, or at least the one that revolves around her. Amanda is honest, capable of faking it when she wants to, except she never wants to. This makes her more likable than Lily, who underneath her expensive finery has had a handful of honest moments in her whole life, maybe. They make a good transactional team, with Lily learning from Amanda how to more effectively manipulate people with manufactured emotions and Amanda getting some interesting experiences out of her time with her ‘friend.’
The supporting characters of Thoroughbreds nicely complement the binary star at its center. The twosome hire a local dirtbag (Anton Yelchin in one of final roles) to off Mark, and he proves to be yet another mentally troubled individual putting on a show. He pretends to be cool and dangerous, but he’s a dishwasher who gets punched in the face by his teenage customers. His act just isn’t as practiced as Amanda’s and Lily’s, and Yelchin ably gives him the stink of desperation and weakness. As Lily’s barely present mother, Francie Swift spends much of the film in the cocoon of a tanning bed, a strong metaphor for false presentation that’s also physically damaging. Sparks’ Mark is an enigmatic character, a man who might be stepping in to parent his stepdaughter out of an obligation or a need to dominate his household. The film allows for both options to be true at the same time. It sees him through Lily’s eyes, and then demonstrates what an unreliable narrator she is, thus recalibrating the viewer’s perception of him. He leaves every scene with a sneer, either a capable villain or a put-upon provider.
Finley proves himself to be a talent-to-watch with the precision and meticulousness of his debut, a technically and intellectually fascinating film. He matches the level of control that his characters are looking for. Thoroughbreds, with its Phantom Thread-level sound design and sharp angles, doesn’t need to fake anything. Its strengths are readily apparent. B+