I CARE A LOT (2020)
A crooked legal guardian who drains the savings of her elderly wards meets her match when a woman she tries to swindle turns out to be more than she appears.
J Blakeson co-wrote tepid horror The Descent Part 2 (2009) before directing his own screenplay The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009) that same year, to greater acclaim. Neither film was a financial success, however, so it took seven years until Hollywood took a chance on Blakeson, by handing him $54M to make The 5th Wave (2016), one of many Young Adult book adaptations cashing-in on the Hunger Games phenomena.
5th Wave wasn’t a hit either, nixing another potential franchise in the bud, so the only thing of note Blakeson’s done since was direct the hit BBC miniseries Gunpowder (2017). But now he’s back with easily his best movie so far, which taps into the modern thriller vibe of Alice Creed and features a similarly memorable lead performance from an English actress.
I went into I Care a Lot without knowing anything about it, which helped the earlier twists and turns work their magic. Simply knowing the premise robs the first act of a few surprises, so feel free to skim the rest of this review if you prefer going in blind too… then come back.
Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) is a tough-as-nails lawyer and con artist, who runs a lucrative grift with her associate and girlfriend Fran (Eiza González). They find elderly people living alone with no family ties, then convince state judges to award Marla guardianship by making it appear like they can’t live safely on their own any more. Once granted, Marla has her victims moved into an assisted living facility and, as they’re now under her legal care, denies them outside contact so they can’t prevent the sale of their homes and assets for profit. Unfortunately, Marla gets more than she bargained for after putting unassuming Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) into a care home, as she later find something valuable in a safe deposit box and draws the attention of a Russian drug trafficker called Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage).
The setup to I Care a Lot is one of the best things about it, as you get dropped into a weird situation it’s hard to believe could really happen. I’m no expert when it comes to US laws governing conservatorship, so maybe there are safety measures in place to ensure Marla’s con couldn’t work in real life, but it feels plausible on the face of it. It’s also unusual to be introduced to a female character who is, outwardly, the villain of the piece. Dianne Wiest does such a wonderful job portraying the helplessness of an old lady being whisked away by smooth-talking lawyers armed with smiles, a court order, and a police escort. It’s so frightening because we know everything is legal, as Marla’s just gaming the system to make herself rich.
It’s impossible to be kind and describe Marla as an antihero figure. She’s a vaping viper of a woman, which makes it a challenge for J Blakeson to make her someone you feel comfortable following as the lead. The decision arrived at is to introduce someone debatably worse, in the form of a Russian drug lord, and then reveal backstory for Jennifer that contains caveats to assumptions she’s an old dear undeserving of this treatment. Does it work? Kind of. It definitely becomes easier to engage with Marla once she’s in over her head with a mobster who’ll stop at nothing to free Jennifer, as it’s only natural to feel sympathy for a woman whose life is being threatened. But then you remember Roman’s viewpoint is closer to ours than Marla’s, so maybe we’re on his side in all this?
I Care a Lot does have problems giving audiences a traditional hero and villain dynamic. Of course, part of its intention is not wanting lay things out so black-and-white. Marla is scumbag lawyer who exploits old folks for money, and Roman’s a nasty crime lord who murders anyone who get in his way. I Care a Lot is a thriller built around two malevolent forces coming into unexpected conflict, and subverts expectations in the sense Marla’s a woman harassed by the men she steamrollers in court, while Roman’s a diminutive man society doesn’t see as a threat. I’m not sure if J Blakeson mentioned Roman’s small stature in the script, or if it was just an interesting layer added by the casting of Dinklage (Game of Thrones), but it certainly helps.
There’s certainly aspects of I Care a Lot that will cause a disconnect with people, as it’s asking audiences to overlook the moral repugnancy of everyone. The resolution may also sit awkwardly for many. I understand if people struggle to follow Marla because she’s a horrible woman they don’t want to see succeed or survive these events. But it helps that Rosamund Pike is up to the challenge of making Marla at least entertainingly reprehensible, which helps make you forget some of the loathsome traits underpinning her personality. Marla’s competent, smart, and charismatic, never flinching in the face of threats that would have ordinary people weeping, and it helps that her love for Fran is the most relatable thing about her. I think the movie should have leaned into their lesbian relationship a little more, particularly once Fran’s own life comes under threat. Eiza González (Baby Driver) is good in this supporting role but it would’ve been better if Fran behaved more realistically to the danger Marla’s stubbornness has created for them both.
Pike will undoubtedly be what everyone remembers about the most about I Care a Lot, even if Marla’s personality isn’t one you can totally sympathise with. It’s still fun seeing how she gets out of impossible situations and never shows any signs of weakness. Pike played a similar snake in David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014), which I’m sure is part of the reason she was drawn to this part, or J Blakeson felt she could make it work. Gone Girl earned Pike numerous award nominations at the time, and she’s already up for a Golden Globe for I Care a Lot. Marla is an undeniably memorable creation, loosely equivalent to what Jake Gyllenhaal achieved in Nightcrawler (2014). Both actors bring life to an unpleasant sociopath in a manner that’s difficult to watch… but you won’t be able to look away.
Overall, I Care a Lot will be contentious viewing for many and there’s a chance it just won’t be on your wavelength because of its moral emptiness, but the combination of excellent performances (especially from Pike) and a gripping narrative, was more than enough for me. It’s not a short movie at over two-hours, but the times flies by and there are enough moments to make you grimace, grin, and gasp in equal measure.
USA • UK | 2021 | 118 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writer & director: J Blakeson.
starring: Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eiza González, Chris Messina & Dianne Wiest.