“Thoroughbreds” is a unique, prickly, genre-bending experience, deftly weaving from horror movie to thriller to … family melodrama.
“I would agree there’s a little melodrama, this sort of Douglas Sirkian domestic thing, in there,” says writer-director Cory Finley, recently in The City to promote the movie, which opens Friday.
“That’s not meant as a commentary on any acting style,” he adds, referring to one of his leading ladies, the hauntingly lovely Anya Taylor-Joy, sitting next to him.
Taylor-Joy (“The Witch,” “Morgan,” “Split” and Netflix’s “Barry”) stars as Lily, a troubled teen who agrees to tutor an even more troubled teen, Amanda (Olivia Cooke).
Amanda has everyone spooked due to a gory incident with a horse, and she claims she has no feelings. She even fake-cries, just to appear sympathetic to others. Lily, on the other hand, seethes with hatred for her obnoxious health-nut stepfather (Paul Sparks).
It’s not hard to assume that Taylor-Joy, a veteran of creepy sci-fi and horror movies, might have been cast as Amanda.
“Is that the vibe I give you?” she laughs. But she says she instantly latched onto Lily, a character closer to her off-screen self.
“I think it would have been an interesting idea, but Olivia’s sarcasm as Amanda is awesome. I wouldn’t wanna see myself doing that. I wanna see her do it,” she says.
At some point during production, Finley wondered what it would have been like for the two actresses to swap roles: “If I had a time machine I’d be curious to go back and do it the other way. But it’s a testament to both performances that I can’t imagine it.”
The director began his career by shooting “really bad camcorder videos” with his younger brother — “mostly sci-fi space opera, and then kind of absurdist comedy as we got a little bit older.”
He transitioned to acting, then to writing plays. “Thoroughbreds” actually began as a play, but eventually moved in its own direction.
“Every draft it was becoming more of a thriller, more of a neo-noir,” Finley says. “It wanted to bust out into a whole murder plot where we leave the house for a little while. And I even started to see it in close-ups and cinematic language. It just felt like a movie.”
One astounding sequence — a long, single take — required a little bit of theater.
“I had to get upstairs, change my shirt, run down the length of the house back into frame, and then Cory wanted the emotional range to go from completely dead, nothing, to softly crying, to full-on toddler bawling, to relaxing it, and then stopping crying. And it was awesome!,” says Taylor-Joy, who shares her method for screen crying.
“I have a really pretentious way of doing it, brought to you by M. Night Shyamalan. I was doing a scene, and he said, ‘This is wonderful, but I’ve seen you cry and your character should have her own tears. Don’t be selfish about it.’ Something about that really stuck with me, and I’m now really proud that each of my characters has different tears,” she says.
Genuine emotions pour over co-star Anton Yelchin, who died in June 2016; in “Thoroughbreds,” his final film, he plays a criminal the girls try to enlist for some dirty dealings.
“Anton gave his character so much heart, which is a very interesting thing to say because technically he’s a child-molesting drug dealer, and that would have been impossible without an actor of that emotional depth and intensity and kindness,” says Taylor-Joy, adding, “He’s a light that will be very missed.”
IF YOU GO
Starring Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin, Paul Sparks
Written and directed by Cory Finley
Running time 1 hour, 32 minutes