Rosamund Pike once again taps into her dark side for her latest film “I Care A Lot”, a snidely titled drama written and directed by J Blakeson. The film had its world premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival with its US distribution rights grabbed by Netflix. The film sees Pike stepping into the skin of a delightfully caustic character so unashamedly ruthless and vile that it makes her Amy character from “Gone Girl” look like a Girl Scout.
“I’ve been poor. It doesn’t agree with me.” That’s a telling introduction to Pike’s character Marla Grayson, but even it doesn’t come close to fully representing the depths of her depravity. Marla is a social racketeer who makes her living scamming elderly people out of their money. It works like this: She appears in court convincing naive judges to appoint her the ‘legal’ guardian of seniors who can no longer take care of themselves. She then shuts out potentially troublesome family members, takes control of the person’s finances, puts them in a nursing home, and then drains their bank accounts dry. To add another sickening layer, her court-sanctioned elder abuse comes with the help of unscrupulous doctors who point her towards vulnerable marks and crooked nursing home administrators who house her wards for profit.
How’s that for detestable? And just think, she’s the movie’s protagonist! An impossible one to root for, but the protagonist nonetheless. She’s essentially a horrible person in a movie about horrible people. Still Marla is the toxic centerpiece, a ravenous predator with a devilish radiance who wields her blonde bob and illusive smile like a weapon. And what’s so unnerving is how unmoved she is by her actions; how she can sell her pack of lies to the court and never blink an eye. Pike’s Marla is cruel, perversely callous and with the help of her partner-in-crime and fellow leech Fran (Eiza Gonzalez), she manipulates her way through the system without a second of moral pause.
There are things about her hustle that doesn’t make sense, namely how she’s able to manage and pocket her victim’s assets once they’re put in a facility when in reality assets count against the patient and go towards their nursing home expenses until they run out. In real-life residents have to account for all of their assets from property to insurance policies with cash value before the state will pick up the cost. Then again maybe the movie is saying that in a system full of flaws who’s to say there aren’t holes big enough for snakes to crawl through?
Marla’s perfect scam is complicated when she hones in on a wealthy new target named Jennifer (played by a superb Dianne Wiest). She seems like the perfect score – nice house, never married, no family. What follows is one of the film’s best sequences as Blakeson shows Marla in action. She and Fran coldly and methodically execute their well-oiled racket, from scouting out their potential victim to broadsiding Jennifer with a court order. In a snap Jennifer goes from having tea and reading the newspaper in her dining room to being shown her new ‘home’ at a nearby senior facility as a “ward of the state”. Meanwhile Marla strips the house bare, sells off Jennifer’s possessions, and begins funneling the money into her own account.
But this time Marla missed a key detail in her pre-scheme investigation. It turns out Jennifer has a very unique connection to an underworld figure named Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage) and he doesn’t take kindly to Marla’s actions. First he tries to handle it the ‘clean’ way by sending his lawyer Dean Erickson (Chris Messina) to meet with Marla. In my favorite scene of the film the two ￼cunningly spar over Jennifer’s release in a meeting full of insincere smiles and poorly veiled threats. Marla refuses to cave while demanding to know who Dean works for. Dean not-so-subtly warns her that not complying could have…”uncomfortable” consequences. It’s such a good scene.
Blakeson introduces some good tension in the middle act as Marla tries to figure out who she’s up against while Roman begins utilizing his unsavory resources to free Jennifer. Unfortunately it all comes unglued in the final third where the story relies on a series of absurdities to get us to the finale. Wiest who is so good vanishes from the screen and Marla goes from a sinister manipulator of the system to a half-baked 00 Agent of sorts. In a flash I went from repulsed (in a good way) and utterly fascinated to laughing out loud at how unintentionally preposterous things had become. The very end has a satisfying kick, but the lead-up to it feels like it belongs in an entirely different movie.
“I Care A Lot” starts as a wickedly potent dive into elder abuse, unethical healthcare practices, and unfathomable greed all channeled through a character so morally bankrupt that you can’t help but be mesmerized by her every word and action. Pike’s brilliantly hellish lack of compassion is burned into every scene, at least in the film’s first half. But then it takes its turn into something far less interesting and much harder to buy. It unravels in a way that’s both baffling and frustrating, so much so that its solid ending can’t fully get the movie back on track. “I Care A Lot” premieres this Friday on Netflix.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS