A story steeped in emotional remoteness manages to command our attention in “Thoroughbreds,” first-time filmmaker Cory Finley’s darkly satirical portrait of the young and disconnected in old-money Connecticut. The indie chamber piece’s numb atmosphere and pitch-black outlook might be self-defeating if not for riveting performances from Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy as Finley’s disquietingly detached rich kids. The mood they conjure feels like millennials’ answer to “The Ice Storm,” only with pervasive suspense, plus some blood.
Iconoclastic British dramatist Harold Pinter has been cited as an inspiration by Finley, a young playwright who originally eyed “Thoroughbreds” as a stage production. But you also sense an affinity for Peter Shaffer’s psyche-dredging “Equus,” especially in a slow-building backstory about the dispassionate manner in which longtime rider Amanda (Cooke) recently dispatched her ailing horse.
Fallout from the episode — both in the courts and among Snapchatty peers — results in Amanda being nudged back toward her estranged BFF, preppie Lily (Taylor-Joy), for awkwardly arranged tutoring sessions. “Playdates,” as Amanda scoffs — or she would, if she were genuinely capable of it, or of feeling anything at all. Her precise diagnosis remains elusive, but there’s no missing the effect of her amoral straight shooting on Lily, whose Waspy decorum morphs into unfiltered disaffection and murderous thoughts about her controlling stepfather (well-cast Paul Sparks, “House of Cards”).
Taylor-Joy gives us an intriguing variation on the persona she’s established in “Split,” “The Witch,” and “Morgan,” films that similarly mined her distant demeanor and porcelain-doll features to capture a feeling of otherness. Meanwhile, Cooke (“Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “Bates Motel”) puts a spin of her own on sassy, sickly characters she’s played, drying out the wit and making her condition a very different sort of puzzle. (Love the Birkenstocks as a subtle expression of her chronic apathy.) Also featured in the film, which shot locally a couple of years ago, is the late Anton Yelchin, in a decent final role as an embittered weed dealer who becomes the girls’ uncertain accomplice.
More than a pure actors’ director, Finley shows himself to be a theater product with a strikingly clear cinematic vision. He treats Lily’s family mansion as an ancillary character, framing the drama with gloomy tracking shots set to an ominous, oddly spare bass-drum score, as well as the telltale thrum of stepdad’s upstairs rowing machine. It’s a big, cold house, but one that the director’s arresting anti-heroines keep from feeling too empty.
Written and directed by Cory Finley. Starring Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Anton Yelchin. Boston Common, Fenway, Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, suburbs. 92 minutes. R (disturbing behavior, bloody images, language, sexual references, some drug content).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.