I Care A Lot starts by telling us that there are no good people, and then sets out to prove it. The opening voiceover of Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) attempts, largely in vain, to cushion us against the abominable behaviour we’re about to see from her. She’s involved in a sophisticated scam in which she becomes the court-appointed guardian of elderly people who are deemed unsound to take care of themselves, after her doctor friend (Alicia Witt, also in on the scam) declares them so. She will then drain as much of their bank accounts and assets as she can get away with, arguing to a judge that any interference from surviving family is just the conflicted interests of people trying to get their hands on their inheritance more quickly. That all-too-credulous judge (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) helps make it a reality.
If this is our protagonist, just imagine what our antagonists must look like. They range from the merely pathetic, like Feldstrom (Macon Blair), who worsens his position by assaulting a retirement home security guard while trying to get in to see his mother, to the truly sociopathic, like Roman (Peter Dinklage), who’s connected to the Russian mafia, and whose own mother (Dianne Wiest) may be more sinister than she appears. Good people? Yeah, they’re nowhere to be found.
This acid sensibility fuels J Blakeson’s third feature, in which monsters fight other monsters, and the experience is akin to the nauseating pleasure of violent spectacle, more than having an actual dog in the fight. That spectacle is pretty enjoyable at times, as we’re privy to all the nasty tricks used by different shady operators to get their way. Blakeson infuses it all with plenty of style, not to mention an intense and discordant score from composer Marc Canham. There can’t help but be a sense of hollowness, though, at the thudding realisation of just how awful everyone in this world truly is.
Marla should be the person we give ourselves over to supporting. Especially in the past 20 years, we’ve been regularly asked to put ourselves in the shoes of such morally compromised protagonists, who do bad things but have a nugget of inner goodness that ultimately steers them in the right direction. That does not describe Marla. It doesn’t get much more despicable than preying on senior citizens, and she does so with relish, part of her rationalisation that this life is full of lions and lambs, and she ain’t no lamb.
The only thing Marla really has going for her, and her only really human trait, is the love she feels for her partner, both in the scam and in life, Fran (Eiza Gonzalez). Suggesting that a character may deserve our sympathy because she has a physical or romantic bond to another person is not something this movie is trying to do. Marla may characterise her killer instinct as a sort of feminism, but even the movie doesn’t believe that. Her character has a kind of dead-eyed professionalism where her soul should be.
She’s still fascinating to watch, though, and that’s all on Pike, who’s fresh off a Golden Globe win for this very role. The actress once tried to make a career in more traditional leading lady roles, but her casting in David Fincher’s Gone Girl unlocked her clearest path to distinctiveness: as a psycho. The character never once makes a play for our sympathies, but Pike gives us that dog in the fight we shouldn’t have through sheer force of terrifying will. And yeah, even though you know she’s an absolute shocker, it’s fun to watch her deliver comeuppance to the men who oppose her using different sorts of monstrous means.
There’s something truly frightening to this whole scenario, which Marla profits from but didn’t set in motion. These older men and women – the ones who comprise a wall of photos in Marla’s office, as though they were suspects in a sting operation – are consigned to care arrangements that they could not possibly consent to, some because they actually have dementia, and some just because a judge can’t tell the difference. It reminds one a bit of the no-win scenario in Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane from a few years back, where the surest sign that you belong in an institution is your desire to check yourself out of it.
It’s great to see Peter Dinklage in this role, serving as both the personification of malevolent masculinity, but also the least likely example of it. If you don’t recall that name, he’s the actor who played Tyrion Lannister on Game of Thrones, short in stature but immense in screen presence. He doesn’t need to tower over the other characters, physically, in order to dominate them. Yet neither is he an uncomplicated portrait of a moustache-twirling villain. He’s a bad guy, yes, but he’s in the right here. He may be the head of a ruthless criminal organisation, but his mother is legitimately being scammed, in a way that deserves the most bloodthirsty vengeance he might imagine.
Though I Care a Lot is ultimately uneven, it represents a big step forward for its writer-director. Blakeson previously made the horror movie The Disappearance of Alice Creed and the tween sci-fi movie The 5th Wave, but neither of those projects suggested an artist who was waiting to unleash a vicious black comedy and/or social satire on us. With a movie entirely peopled by venal characters, Blakeson really ran the risk of alienating the audience. Instead he’s made the kind of car crash that makes you want to watch instead of look away.
I Care a Lot is currently streaming on Amazon Prime in Australia.