|Director: J Blakeson |
|Screenplay: J Blakeson|
|Stars: Rosamund Pike (Marla Grayson), Peter Dinklage (Roman Lunyov), Eiza González (Fran), Dianne Wiest (Jennifer Peterson), Chris Messina (Dean Ericson), Isiah Whitlock Jr. (Judge Lomax), Macon Blair (Feldstrom), Alicia Witt (Dr. Amos), Damian Young (Sam Rice), Nicholas Logan (Alexi Ignatyev), Liz Eng (Adelaide)|
|MPAA Rating: R|
|Year of Release: 2021|
|Country: U.K. / U.S.|
Give credit where credit is due: writer/director J Blakeson caused me no end of struggle in dealing with his latest film, I Care a Lot. I have seen lots of films with unsavory protagonists—serial killers, mobsters, grifters, con artists, Wall Street sharks, child murderers, corrupt politicians—but I can’t remember the last time I so intensely disliked the main character of a film. Of course, that is precisely the point, and if I Care a Lot is a success, its success lies in how it systematically constructs for us a loathsome (and unapologetically loathsome) protagonist and how unblinking it is in refusing to soften said character or give her any kind of redemptive story arc or even a hint of possible change.
No, Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) is a bad person. She knows she is a bad person. And she does not care that she is a bad person. And, even more to the point, as she tells us in the opening voice-over narration, she has nothing but disdain for people like us who see her as bad and ourselves as fundamentally good. “Look at you,” she says in the film’s opening moments. “Sitting there. You think you’re good people. You’re not good people. Trust me, there’s no such thing as good people.”
With that one declaration she erases the possibility of goodness from the world, and perhaps it is that smug cynicism that makes her so loathsome—her absolute unwillingness to see people as anything other than bad, which then justifies all of her worst actions. Why not take advantage of people when they are all bad anyway? And that, as it turns out, is part of the film’s problem because it presents the world as Marla so superficially sees it. I Care a Lot is nothing if not a cavalcade of odious characters, which forces us to either identify with no one or select the least rotten apple and hope that it doesn’t poison us. There is no one good, or even basically decent, in the film, which reifies Marla’s twisted perception. As a result, the film is a deeply uncomfortable watch—genuinely unpleasant and surprisingly so—but this, again, is clearly the point. Blakeson, who previously directed the abduction thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009) and the sci-fi disaster movie The 5th Wave (2016), didn’t set out to make a conventional satirical thriller and then fail to provide us with a comfortable vantage point. Rather, he took the basic genre mechanics we have seen time and time again and then removed all the elements that make voyeurism into the world of sociopathic criminality fun and enjoyable and emotionally safe. The closest thing I can liken it to is Michael Haneke’s Funny Games (1997/2007), which similarly gives us what we say we want in a violent thriller, but without the comforting accoutrements and plenty of forced self-evaluation.
The film’s plot centers on Marla’s carefully orchestrated operation as a professional, court-appointed legal guardian for senior citizens. Working with a corrupt doctor (Alicia Witt), the crooked manager of a care facility (Damian Young), and a naïve judge (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), she seeks out wealthy seniors with little or no family and then convinces the court that they are not capable of managing their own lives and gets herself appointed their legal guardian, which gives her Kafkaesque control over virtually every aspect of their lives. She then uses that power to enrich herself financially by selling off her wards’ assets while putting them away in locked-down long-term care facilities, where they are heavily medicated and isolated from any and all family members who might try to intervene.
It is a truly odious operation, one that preys on some of the most vulnerable among us, but it works incredibly well for Marla and her partner/lover, Fran (Eiza González), particularly because Marla is so adept at manipulating the legal and medical systems that are ostensibly in place to protect people, but with only a little twisting can be turned into weapons of false imprisonment (the film, if anything, plays as a damning indictment of the so-called “nanny state,” where well-intentioned government programs care for people who are deemed incapable of caring for themselves). The wheels threaten to come off Marla’s operation when she targets Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), a wealthy woman who has never been married and apparently has no family. Marla gets her committed to a home and then takes over her house and starts selling off all her possessions. However, what she doesn’t know is that Jennifer has a special relationship with Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), a powerful and ruthless Russian mobster who does not take kindly to Marla’s unwelcome intervention into Jennifer’s life.
And this where things get really dicey, as the second half of the film essentially pits Marla and Roman against each other and we watch like spectators in a gladiatorial arena to see who manages to destroy whom and with how much malice. There are some nasty twists and turns as Marla refuses to bow to Roman’s pressure, something to which he is clearly not accustomed, and the stakes continually escalate. What you probably won’t see coming is how the situation is resolved in the final 10 minutes, and what you really won’t see coming are the final moments, which offer a sudden and long-withheld catharsis that essentially forces us to ask ourselves why we so ardently desired this particular outcome. The way I see it, I Care a Lot is nearly two hours of precision-molded displeasure that suddenly gives us exactly what we think we wanted all along, but in such a way that we are forced to deal with our own spectatorial bloodlust.
It would be disingenuous to separate the film’s effect from the fact that its protagonist is woman, and the question of whether Marla is particularly dislikeable because she is a woman. That is, did my own culturally internalized sense of femininity contribute to my disgust at Marla’s actions and desire to see her get her comeuppance? Would I have felt differently about her had she been a male? Perhaps. I have certainly been repelled by male characters with similarly revolting ethics, but Marla is particularly problematic because so much of her criminality is framed within conventional terms of feminine empowerment. She speaks numerous times about her having been mistreated by men, who often underestimate her because she is a woman. Marla, if anything, is a powerful rebuke to the idea that women are somehow inferior to men—what Molly Haskell termed “the big lie” in her book From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies. Yet, is Marla’s ability to confront men and defeat them on their own terrain using her mind and her determination—she pointedly never uses her sexuality and she refuses to be an object, which separates her from the traditional femme fatale—not undermined by the nature of her activities? After all, she doesn’t just steal or swindle, but rather actively dehumanizes others and reduces them to objects to be manipulated, imprisoned, and stripped of their dignity and human rights for her own financial gain.
With her razor-sharp blonde bob, chic suits, and air of unflappable confidence, Marla is a towering, commanding figure of feminine empowerment turned wickedly vile. Rosamund Pike has played variations of this kind of intense, exacting character before—notably in the revenge thrillers Gone Girl (2014) and Return to Sender (2015)—but here she is particularly unassailable, perhaps because her character is so sociopathically focused on her own enrichment and dismissive of everyone else. She harbors no ideology beyond the monetary, which makes her an icon of capitalism stripped to its bare essence; she doesn’t just aspire to upward mobility, but to grotesque financial extravagance. She is monumental and unwavering in her ruthless, moral callousness; even a character as debauched as Jordan Belfont in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) was at times desperate, self-destructive, and pathetic in addition to being smug and cold-hearted; Marla is just the latter. She goes toe to toe with many men and refuses to bow to any of them, especially those who bank on beating her simply because she is a woman. Yet her schemes are so single-mindedly self-serving and so harmful to other women (the two main characters we see her fleece as part of her grift are women) that it would be detrimental to progressive politics to label them anything other than abhorrent.
It doesn’t help that we don’t know anything about her, either. She seems to be almost preformed, without a past, and never having been anything other than relentlessly ambitious and utterly lacking in empathy. This one-dimensionality makes her something of a cartoon and eliminates any possibility of nuance or depth, which makes it all the easier to despise her. Yet, the film is provocative and smart enough to not let us off the hook, which is why I am still grappling with it so many days after seeing it. I Care a Lot is a film of profound displeasure, but it is certainly one that forces you to think about why it is so.
Copyright © 2021 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Netflix