If you don’t like to watch movies about horrible people doing horrible things, you’ll probably want to skip J Blakeson’s I Care A Lot. If you, like me, are a zealous fan of the small but growing canon of lesbian heist movies — which includes The Handmaiden and the very underrated Can You Ever Forgive Me? —then you might have fun with this cynical, clinical movie steeped in the horrors of capitalism and greed. Enjoyment of the film likely directly correlates with one’s capacity for callousness. I Care A Lot is wicked from start to finish. Unfortunately, it’s also ultimately vacuous in its portrayal of money-hungry monsters.
The gay con artist at the center of the tale is Marla Grayson, played by Rosamund Pike in her best role since Gone Girl. Marla has made a mega-scam out of legal guardianship for moneyed seniors. She colludes with doctors and administrators at senior homes to seize control of these unsuspecting folks’ lives, barring their families from getting involved. It’s a seamless grift. Marla’s brutal pursuit of wealth is horrifying. She sees her charges only in terms of dollar signs. And when she finally hits a snag in her masterminding, it’s not because some hero or executor of justice swoops in. It’s because she finds herself butting up against people just as sinister as herself.
Her latest mark is too good to be true: a single, famililess, wealthy woman named Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) who has shown some small signs of memory loss, but her doctor has no problem exaggerating those symptoms in order to get an emergency hearing so that Marla can scoop her up. So long as the doctor gets a cut. But Jennifer is indeed too good to be true. And she’s connected to some very bad people. Marla meets her match, and rather than backing down, she’s entertained by it. She likes a challenge.
There are no heroes in I Care A Lot. Marla muses in voiceover at the start that there’s no such thing as good people, and while I obviously disagree, I fully believe that she believes it. And it’s also certainly true that this movie lacks goodness. It’s a movie where the bad guys are fighting the bad guys, and that’s surprisingly, perversely fun.
Despite all the selfishness and casual cruelty, the movie’s not entirely devoid of interpersonal relationships though. Peter Dinklage’s Russian mobster Roman is ruthless but also loves his mother. Marla’s partner in business Fran (Eiza González) is also her actual partner, and their relationship is surprisingly convincing. Their sex is pretty vanilla, but in some ways, that’s not where the real intimacy is for them. There’s more fire in the way they look at each other when executing a heist. They enable each other’s greed, hungry for each other but also for what they do for each other. It’s not romantic, but it is erotic.
J Blakeson’s direction adds a sleek shine that’s ultimately effective. It buoys the film’s darkness but doesn’t really romanticize Marla’s life or her actions. If anything, that slick camerawork only further emphasizes how evil everyone is, providing an illuminating backdrop to their moral depravity. There’s something more disturbing about watching a bleak narrative in bright technicolor. Marla moves through life in bold single-color suits and a blonde bob cut like an ice sculpture, perpetually clutching a massive vape pen for dear life. The visuals have an Atomic Blonde-like sharpness (but don’t worry, the plot here, while almost a little too neat at times, is not nearly as convoluted or porous), and it’s always refreshing to watch action that doesn’t over-rely on gunfire. At one point, Fran uses what appears to be a reusable shopping bag to take someone out.
Yes, it’s true that most of these characters are defined solely by no more than two interests (Marla: vaping and money; Roman: pastries and his mother). But even though every character here is a sketch, I found myself only really wanting more when it comes to Fran—who largely exists only as Marla’s sidearm—and Jennifer. Jennifer is sort of the nexus for the story, but she’s also absent for much of it, and while Wiest’s performance is sheer delight, she’s underused. And the plot device nature of the character misses out on an opportunity to really dig deeper into the themes I Care A Lot approaches with an exacto-knife when maybe a spade would have unearthed more substance.
Marla’s a glamorous, ferocious caricature. She doesn’t fear death. She’s arrogant to the point of foolishness and yet still always one step ahead of her enemies. She hungrily goes toe-to-toe with Roman’s lawyer, played by Chris Messina, in one of the funniest but also most acidic scenes, one that perfectly encapsulates the show’s crisp and caustic tone. In the film’s final act, she displays almost superhuman qualities, that animalistic survival mode that Pike previously harnessed in the final act of Gone Girl resurfacing here. Marla’s motive is simple: She wants success and power, and she believes one cannot achieve those things without playing dirty. Beyond that black-and-white worldview, we get little by way of Marla’s interiority. She seems less like an actual person and more like a symbol. But truthfully, it works for me.
I Care A Lot is a damning indictment of the corruption that pollutes the courts, healthcare, for-profit elderly care and, most of all, state-sanctioned guardianship, which strips the elderly and disabled folks of their agency. The movie borders on surreal in how blunt it is about its cruelty. Marla’s grift is seamless, because the system bends in her favor. Marla’s a symbol, yes, a symbol for capitalism at its most pronounced—dehumanizing and mechanical and impervious to reform. Marla flirts briefly with getting out of the game when she sees the risks it poses to Fran, but it’s barely a cough of hesitation, especially since Fran also wants what she wants, both continuing to play a dangerous game that’ll never end. Marla is a well oiled machine, and all of the characters here are products of a well oiled machine.
She’s a tricky protagonist for a film to hinge on because of just how irredeemably bad she is and how broadly her motives are sketched. Pike makes it hard to look away from the character though—not because she’s imbuing depth necessarily but because she’s playing the stark brutality so goddamn well. It definitely feels strange to call such a cynical movie fun to watch, but it’s an entertaining thriller thanks to Pike, especially in Marla’s most Amazing Amy moments. But too many things ultimately hold the film back, including the underbaked nature of both Fran and Jennifer but also the odd times when the script makes a girlboss out of Marla. The character—and movie as a whole—work best when she’s just doing bad things and the writing isn’t bending to justify those things.
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