Full disclosure: I did not love The Queen’s Gambit, but I completely see the appeal. The Netflix miniseries stars Anya Taylor-Joy as a hard-working, obsessive, haunted-by-her-demons chess prodigy who wipes the floor with all kinds of older male chess grandmasters while trying her best to ignore her complicated, burgeoning humanity in order to keep crushing the pawns in her path. If you were compelled by The Queen’s Gambit from beginning to end, and are now going through withdrawal, in need of something to scratch a similar itch, I’ve got you. Now that you’ve seen Taylor-Joy obliterate her opponents in chess, how about a film in which she obliterates her opponents in… human chess?
Thoroughbreds, the debut feature from writer/director Cory Finley (who went on to helm the remarkable Bad Education for HBO), stars Taylor-Joy as a privileged, ambitious, and verging-on-sociopathic prep school student who finds an unorthodox friendship and catalyst in Olivia Cooke, a less-ambitious but purely emotionless horror show of a young woman. As their relationship deepens and the facades of polite humanity drop further and further, the two conspire to murder Taylor-Joy’s asshole stepfather (Paul Sparks) with the unwitting assistance of a low-level, high-dreaming drug dealer played by Anton Yelchin (his final film role). How low are the depths these women will plunge to in order to win? Do we really need to strip ourselves of all encumbrances of humanity to succeed? Will the queen’s gambit pay off — and do we, as an audience, want it to?
Thoroughbreds asks and answers all of these complex, disquieting questions and more, and you don’t need seven episodes to get through it, either. It runs a tight and cool 92 minutes, stuffing each second with stylish filmmaking, blackly funny discussions, and an increasingly horrifying lack of limitations. It’s a “chess neo-noir” of sorts, a film of plotting and scheming and strategizing where the ultimate payoff is killing the king — just, you know, literally. It’s clear to us that Taylor-Joy and Cooke are using everyone and everything around them, from money to drugs to people, as real-life chess pieces in a strategy only they know until it’s unleashed. And just in case it isn’t clear enough for you, one cannily staged scene features Taylor-Joy and Cookie discussing their scheme on a literal, life-size, outdoor chessboard; the perfect visual foil to Taylor-Joy playing giant dream chess on the ceiling in The Queen’s Gambit.
In The Queen’s Gambit, Taylor-Joy starts off and stays pretty secluded, pretty “othered,” pretty “outside looking in”. Her emotional arc, beyond the external conflicts of beating everyone at chess, is finding the balance between being “great” and being “human”; being “exceptional” and being “accepted”. In Thoroughbreds, this arc is fascinatingly, even cynically, switched. The film starts with Taylor-Joy knowing how to put on an accessible face, how to talk to those around her with basic tenets of superficial politeness in order to get, sneakily, what she might want. Cooke, thus, is Thoroughbreds‘ version of The Queen’s Gambit‘s Bill Camp — a mentor who unlocks a new door of “greatness” that Taylor-Joy could never consider opening on her own. Like Camp showing Taylor-Joy some of the fundamentals of chess strategies, Cooke shows her the fundamentals of pure sociopathy — how to cry on command, how to disengage from emotion-driven conversation, how to use and manipulate people’s flaws and egos in order to win, win, win. It makes for a fascinating, engaging, and captivating chaser to The Queen’s Gambit — instead of watching a woman resist her inherent humanity before finally giving in, we’re watching a woman resist her inherent inhumanity, and we sort of want it to happen!
As for the unwitting pawns of Taylor-Joy and Cooke’s obsessive quest for domination and destruction? Yelchin is devastatingly open, heartfelt, and alive in this film — the perfect, unwitting, tragic weapon for Taylor-Joy and Cooke to wield. His character reminds me a bit of Thomas Brodie-Sangster‘s chess champ frenemy in The Queen’s Gambit, both in appearance and what they represent to Taylor-Joy’s character. Both Yelchin and Brodie-Sangster have a sort of visceral bend to Taylor-Joy’s more cerebral energy (in both works). They both have scraggly beards, gnarly hair, gut-level egos, self-written mythologies, and dreams of ascending beyond their present tense stations in life. From the jump, we view them both as being pathetic figures, as symbols of male over-confidence and under-preparation for our female hero to destroy. In The Queen’s Gambit, this initial impression is complicated by Taylor-Joy’s eventual, genuine, and even saccharine friendship with Brodie-Sangster; her willingness and desire to align herself with his views on chess and the human race. Not so much in Thoroughbreds. The temptation is there, for sure; at one particularly violent moment, Yelchin pleads with Taylor-Joy that he can see the inherent conscience alit in her belly, no matter how hard Cooke is trying to help snuff it out. But ultimately, Taylor-Joy has simply become too good at, too laser-focused on, and too committed to her particular game of chess.
The title of Thoroughbreds comes from the world of horses. A thoroughbred horse is bred specifically for optimum performance in racing, in skill, in agility, in purity. The film opens with a literal act of dominating one of these thoroughbreds — Cooke euthanizing a family horse in her own hands — and ends with a slightly different one at Taylor-Joy’s hands, too. It’s the singular tale of realizing one’s destiny, purpose, and power, no matter how grim it may be, no matter who must be captured and destroyed along the way. If The Queen’s Gambit is a respectful game of chess that ends in a friendly draw, Thoroughbreds is a vicious, unrelenting sprint to an acrimonious checkmate.
For more on Thoroughbreds, here’s our initial review.