There’s a scene in writer-director Cory Finley’s debut feature “Thoroughbreds,” a satirical thriller-noir set in the wealthy Connecticut suburbs (but filmed locally), where emotionless teen Amanda (Olivia Cooke) schools her until-recently estranged friend Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) in the art of crying on command. She calls it the “technique,” a series of steps designed to get the tears flowing without actually feeling anything. Lily’s a quick study and before long the girls face each other, eyes moist and shoulders shaking, secretly thrilled to have mastered the method.
The moment is a fitting intro to the dark, morally bankrupt world of “Thoroughbreds,” opening here Friday, especially once the two disaffected youths conspire to plot the murder of Lily’s controlling stepfather (Paul Sparks). Set largely within the halls of Lily’s decadent mansion, “Thoroughbreds” draws a strange, almost animalistic power from little more than the unfolding of its two young leads, often framed mirroring each other as they hatch their scheme on the living room couch.
With this in mind, it’s unsurprising to learn that Finley, who was in town with Taylor-Joy recently promoting “Thoroughbreds,” had originally conceived the story not as a feature but as a stage play.
“It started with a sense of a place, this kind of sheltered, glitzy community,” recalls the 29-year-old director. “Then, without giving spoilers, with a violent act, a very particular sort of violent act that is in the sort of backstory of the movie. That act had an interesting type of moral thinking behind it, an amoral, strange sort of thinking behind it. That was the starting point for the way these two characters would think.”
Even before he decided to expand the story into a feature film — stylishly lensed by “A Girl Walks Home at Night” cinematographer Lyle Vincent and scored by jazz-influenced composer Erik Friedlander — Finley was fascinated by the dramatic potential of two young women, emotionally numbed and psychologically warped by being, as he puts it, “beneficiaries of privilege and also trapped within it.”
At first, says the director, “it was just putting these two characters literally on an imaginary couch together: letting them talk, and listening to what they said, and letting that guide the story to the strangest and most interesting place possible.”
As the project developed, however, Finley became intrigued by the prospect of placing “Thoroughbreds” within a more fully realized world, one that could inform its themes of capitalist excess and moral decay. It evolved into a feature, and Finley began hunting for two young actresses who could carry the tricky psychodrama. He expresses relief that the project found talents like Taylor-Joy, who broke out in 2015 horror period piece “The Witch,” and Cooke, best known for TV’s “Bates Motel.”
For Taylor-Joy, getting inside a character as complicated as Lily was simply a matter of empathy.
“I really love my characters; they’re very real people for me,” explains the actress, 21.
She says she’s drawn to “messy,” complicated characters with unique perspectives; across “The Witch,” thriller “Split,” sci-fi “Morgan,” and the upcoming X-Men spinoff “The New Mutants,” her roles share some element of repressed identity bubbling — sometimes violently — to the surface. Taylor-Joy chalks this up to a sense of kinship and a desire to “give a voice to people who don’t have one.”
“I personally don’t believe that you can play a character if you don’t love them, and see things from their point of view, and defend them in a certain way,” she adds. When the actress read Finley’s script, she says she immediately locked onto Lily’s fractured, abnormal psychology.
“I just thought about how a girl who’s so desperate to seem like she has it together, how does she hold herself, and in what way does she apply that veneer every morning?” Taylor-Joy explains. “I found it really fascinating to remove those layers slowly as the movie goes on and actually open up the nervous wreck that she is.”
While she couldn’t relate to Lily’s murderous tendencies, Taylor-Joy did draw on the experience of growing up with rich peers.
“I went to a very posh, English all-girls school,” says the actress, “so I’ve come into contact with people that are trapped by their privilege or just don’t have an understanding of the world outside of their little bubble.”
Finding the right place to shoot the movie, somewhere with that same sense of insulating affluence, was paramount. While searching for the perfect blend of rich and remote, the team lensing “Thoroughbreds” came across The Oaks, an iconic 9-acre Cohasset mansion that was once Massachusetts’ most-expensive home.
“The house is very much a character in the film,” says Taylor-Joy, adding that some of the adornments of The Oaks were toned down to achieve the desired aesthetic — ironically, the mansion was a little too lavish. Shooting last summer around Cohasset, the cast and crew rented bikes and observed the suburb’s picturesque feel.
“The houses are all cookie-cutter perfect, in a way, and that was just an interesting thing to think about,” explains the actress. “If someone has been brought up living like this their entire lives, and they don’t really know any differently, what kinds of things can transpire in there?”
Finley and Taylor-Joy have avoided spoilers to ensure press coverage of “Thoroughbreds” doesn’t give away what transpires and to protect the film’s serpentine twists and turns, but they say they’ve been thrilled with how festival audiences and early screenings have greeted “Thoroughbreds.”
“It’s an interesting mix of tones,” says Finley of his debut. “In some screenings it’s felt like a very kind of crazy midnight-movie comedy, and in some screenings it feels deadly serious. People, hopefully, seem so far to be enjoying it in both modes.”Isaac Feldberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.