I Care a Lot is both a snappy and modestly macabre Milgram experiment exploring the intersection of authority and altruism and a comic, contemptuous crime caper that yanks open the gaping wounds of late-stage capitalism. Writer-director J Blakeson pitches the anxiety level of his ill-gotten-gains story somewhere between the unflappability of Steven Soderbergh and unbridled mayhem of the Safdie Brothers. It neither matches the angina-attack acceleration of Uncut Gems nor settles into superficial shell-game pulp a la Side Effects. Blakeson tells his tale with tough thematic conviction, visual panache and a fierce, feral and fearless leading turn from Rosamund Pike, who’s even better here than in her Oscar-nominated turn in Gone Girl.
Is there any worse Hollywood representation for such a lauded actress in her prime than Pike? It’s been more than six years since Gone Girl, a time during which Pike has generally second-fiddled to silver-screen non-starters like Jon Hamm (Beirut) or Joel Kinnaman (The Informer), wasted away in highfalutin Oscar-bait miserablism like Hostiles, or game-faced through romantic pap (A United Kingdom). It’s depressing that this Netflix pickup from STX Films, premiering Friday on the streaming service, represents her highest-profile follow-up yet.
Pike does much more than recycle that film’s ice-queen energy, too, as Marla Grayson, who has propelled herself out of poverty with her self-made business. When sons or daughters can’t properly care for their aging parents, or old folks simply have no family to help, Marla swoops in with her cronies to trap them in a conservatorship where she makes all decisions on the elder’s behalf. Living arrangements, medication, finances. You name it, Marla games it. (Although all the marks here are seniors, I Care a Lot coincidentally intersects with actual headline-grabbing discussions about the scruples of Britney Spears’ conservatorship arrangement with her father.)
It’s a for-profit endeavor, sure. The judges siding with Marla know that. She rationalizes it as fair compensation for care demonstrated when no one else can or will. But what Marla’s really doing is creating a cottage industry out of conservatorship — raiding savings, flipping houses before the bed is turned down at an assisted-living facility, pilfering safety-deposit boxes. Anybody who hasn’t spent the last half-dozen years behind partisan blinders will understand the impetus for Blakeson’s story and Marla’s character: There’s been a trickle-down effect of unchecked, often amoralistic, ambition in America, and they want in on the racket, too. As Marla says: She doesn’t want to weaponize her money but use it as a bludgeon, the way real rich people do.
Marla is unmistakably ruining people’s lives, often asserting control on the thinnest technicality. And yes, individuals get their ire up in court sometimes. But Blakeson understands why Marla is generally able to quickly quash those beefs. In the grand scheme of American dreams, this is somewhat of a socially acceptable grift. After all: If there were such vigorous inclination or initiative from the young, able-bodied, vivacious and independent among us to drop everything, flip the script and care for our elder relatives when that time comes, the world wouldn’t even need a Marla that had the best intentions. The title isn’t just a jab at Marla’s boilerplate response, it’s a poke at how we often fumble for pithy sentiment to defend our choices or inactions.
In the space of aging out, society stamps a best-by date on all of us that our bodies always outlast. Marla knows “at heart, most of us are weak, compliant and scared” at even the slightest inference of infirmity, and so many will gladly gather their things and shuffle along however unlikely or unnecessary it might seem. Neither do we meet an aggrieved party in the film who seems interested and capable of carrying out what Marla can do on their own. Blakeson also lets us see how Marla exploits a doddering, defanged patriarchy in tandem with so very many bureaucratic loopholes; after all, the best defense that most frothing men can muster is to spit in her face and call her a bitch. On that score, Blakeson slips in an authentic sliver of admiration for Marla amid her otherwise abhorrent endeavor.
But what happens when Marla tries to snag a septuagenarian who has no shortage of dangerous secrets and who has, unbeknownst to her, raised a son even more sinister than Marla? “Even sadistic, immoral assholes get old,” says Fran (Eiza González), Marla’s compatriot and lover, in one of Blakeson’s many quotable quips. Dianne Wiest endows the former with a diabolically excited anticipation of apocalyptic retribution headed Marla’s way, and Peter Dinklage plays her son Roman, who has plenty of experience architecting animus for people who have crossed him.
Pike and Dinklage crackle as Marla and Roman pound away at each other; Dinklage, in particular, has an impeccable silent response when he realizes the barrel over which he’s held so many women before him won’t make Marla blink or think twice. Chris Messina slays his scenes as a smug pinstriped attorney hatchetman. Marc Canham’s Reznor-ish score lends an electronic pulse that propels the film along. Blakeson expertly times the inevitable escalation into bodily harm, attempted or achieved, for maximum effect.
I Care a Lot is a confident, entertaining thriller from start to almost finish. If anything rings false, it’s a closing-seconds coda attempting sleight-of-hand surprise that other thrillers have done better. It comes off as a value judgment levied against survivors of Marla and Roman’s clash in a film that, quite frankly, needs no tsk-tsking. And after a climax that arrives at a resolution far more interesting than violence or vengeance, it feels like a bit of a conventional fallback.
At its black heart, this is a scrappily entertaining film with a surplus of surprises. The best of those is that Marla wouldn’t mind slowly running razors over her scars if that’s what she needed to remind her of life lived and ahead of her. Roman is just the trickiest gauntlet Marla has yet encountered. She’s learned well from the licks taken from obstacles before him. Thankfully, Blakeson doesn’t lard the film with flashbacks or surprise reappearances of problematic people from Marla’s past. Instead, he lets Pike internalize them in Marla’s hungry survivalist personality.
One involves her instinctual preservation method for a dislodged tooth. Another involves Marla bear-hugging a hot-dog warmer out of a necessity with which she’s clearly familiar. Marla is the sort of person who knows she only has so many primal screams to emit into the world lest the wrong person hear it; Pike and Blakeson know just when to let that fly, too. You’re not meant to care a lot for anyone in I Care a Lot. But you will relish its rip-roaring recognition of their roles in the world, whether they’re truly work against our best interests or our performative gestures of the same.