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Thoroughbreds got killer performances from two of today’s best genre stars

Before House of the Dragon and The Queen’s Gambit made them famous, Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy starred in a razor-sharp teen thriller.

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Ever since Winona Ryder turned her teenage angst into a body count, the teen thriller has inexorably linked mean girls to murder. Sometimes it sanded the violence down into emotional murder and social suicide (Mean Girls), or it raised the stakes to demonic heights (Jennifer’s Body). Whatever the case, the best of these thrillers prove that hell truly is a teenage girl. But lest it be forgotten that the deepest circle of hell is ice-cold, the chilling teen thriller Thoroughbreds is here to remind you.

A 2017 black comedy that didn’t make much of a splash outside critical and genre circles upon its release, Thoroughbreds is of fascinating importance. It featured the final performance of Anton Yelchin before his tragic passing, and it starred Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy before they blew up to become genre stars. Cooke would go on to become part of this year’s “negroni sbagliato” meme and breakout star of the acclaimed Game of Thrones prequel House of the Dragon, and while Anya Taylor-Joy was already a horror darling at the time of Thoroughbreds’ release, it took The Queen’s Gambit for her to become a household name.

But Thoroughbreds is more than a cinematic curio of two would-be Genre It Girls. It’s a razor-sharp evolution of the teen thriller, a black comedy of the blackest variety. Originally written as a stage play, Thoroughbreds can’t shake off the heightened superficiality of its premise so instead embraces it, with writer-director Cory Finley shooting almost exclusively in cool tones and natural light, and Cooke and Taylor-Joy giving deadpan, borderline monotone performances. It all comes together to create a kind of uncanny immersion, placing you in the headspaces of two upper-class girls who are definitely sociopaths.

Cooke and Taylor-Joy star as Amanda and Lily, two former friends who reconnect after drifting apart following the death of Lily’s father. Amanda, who can’t experience emotions due to an unspecified mental disorder, is an outcast on trial for animal cruelty after euthanizing her crippled horse with a knife. Lily, meanwhile, has become a popular and successful student with one thorn in her side: Her emotionally abusive stepfather (Paul Sparks), whom she despises. When Lily’s stepfather threatens to send her away to a boarding school for girls with behavioral issues, Lily and Amanda begin a plot to murder him, dragging in unwitting drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin) to cover their tracks. Naturally, things go awry.

The fashion choices, however, do not.

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Thoroughbreds is Heathers for the Instagram generation, a film of carefully curated images and beautiful protagonists whose perfect hair and stone-cold faces don’t betray the violent urges hiding beneath the surface. It’s a film that suggests our brightest minds are all would-be killers, if only they could get away with it.

There’s a fascinating element of class that runs through Thoroughbreds too, though the film is sometimes a little too insular to fully grapple with it. Both Amanda and Lily are upper-class girls, whose privilege and wealth they take for granted, but it’s Amanda who’s the outcast because of her anhedonia. What the two share is a disdain for the world around them, which makes them unexpected kindred spirits. It’s through this shared disdain that they game the system, unveiling the thin veneer between what’s acceptable and what’s not in high society.

Thoroughbreds is ultimately a very cynical teen thriller — it has none of the emotional catharsis of Mean Girls nor the explosive conclusion of Heathers. Terrible things happen, and life just goes on. It’s nothing game-changing, but it’s always gutting to see that the rich and wealthy truly can get away with murder.

Thoroughbreds leaves HBO Max on December 31.

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