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Seldom has a film’s title been more thoroughly doused in darkest irony than J. Blakeson’s breathtakingly vicious thriller I Care a Lot. In a role that makes riveting use of her chilly poise, Rosamund Pike brings crisp efficiency and dead-eyed amorality to a legal conservator scamming defenseless seniors out of their assets as she and her co-conspirators take control of their lives, shutting out pesky family members whenever necessary. At a time when governments in many countries seem to be abandoning traditional watchdog responsibilities and turning a blind eye to corporate malfeasance, the phrase “ward of the state” here takes on an alarming new meaning.
Stories of elder abuse and companies exploiting the weaknesses of people whose failing physical or mental faculties leave them unable to take care of themselves in the eyes of the courts are an ugly fact of contemporary reality. So your enjoyment of this slick, well-crafted crime caper might depend on your ability to separate thoughts of your own aging parents or grandparents from the scenario.
The movie is either delectably wicked or dyspeptically sour — you decide. I went back and forth while watching, though there was never a moment when I wasn’t glued, even if some of the plotting in the script by Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed, The 5th Wave) becomes a stretch as Pike’s character, Marla Grayson, shifts from fooling the gullible courts into outmaneuvering a ruthless crime boss and his deadly flunkies. Some audiences may also find it off-putting that the characters across the board are pretty much irredeemable, or in the case of the family court judge Marla effortlessly dupes, stupid.
Marla might be the perfect villainous antihero for the age of Trump, who of course has made no secret of his contempt for “losers.” Over sunny slo-mo opening footage of smiling elder-care workers distributing medication to gaga patients, Marla informs us there’s no such thing as good people. “Playing fair is a joke invented by the rich to keep the rest of us poor.” Revealing that she has been poor and it doesn’t agree with her, Marla explains that there are two types of people: predators and prey, lions and lambs. “My name is Marla Grayson and I am no lamb. I am a fucking lioness.”
We first glimpse her from behind in the courtroom of Judge Lomax (Isiah Whitlock Jr.), her silvery-blond bob so sharp it looks like it could draw blood. But Marla can turn on the guardian-angel sincerity as required. She doubles down on her position as Feldstrom (Macon Blair), the adult son of one of her wards, fights a non-visitation order preventing him from seeing his mother, whose home and assets have been auctioned off by Marla, ostensibly to fund the old woman’s care.
When Feldstrom confronts her outside the court, smugly preparing to take off with her business and romantic partner Fran (Eiza González), Marla reveals her glacial true self. It’s also here that the script introduces its blunt feminist subtext that men don’t have exclusive domain over playing dirty, yet nothing stings them worse than being beaten by a woman.
Marla’s company, Grayson Guardianship, is a major enterprise with stylish offices and a wall of headshots in the executive suite showing the status of her many wards and their cash yield. The news that one of them has died unexpectedly brings annoyance, since Marla expected to keep bilking him for at least another six years: “Now I have to cash him out, turn over everything to his inheritors. What a fucking waste.” But it also creates opportunity, with the sudden vacancy of a plum room at a pricey facility whose sleazy administrator, Sam Rice (Damian Young), is in on the scam.
Dr. Karen Amos (Alicia Witt) is also part of the operation, with her hand out for a cut; she steers fresh cash cows in Marla’s direction, fudging their medical assessments as necessary. In Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), a well-heeled woman who downsized for retirement and is sitting on a fortune, Karen believes she has found a “cherry,” a patient with no known family and vast assets to be tapped, including a large house in an upscale neighborhood. Gumshoe Fran’s investigation indicates that Jennifer fits the mold.
Wiest is in fine form as a still very much competent woman, who goes from confusion to anger to shell-shocked compliance when faced with Marla’s court order and cops standing by in case she resists as they relocate her from her home without warning.
The heartlessness of this scene alone will be distressing for many audiences, even more so when Jennifer is checked into the facility run by Sam, and swiftly relieved of her cell phone. (A 2017 New Yorker article illustrated the horrifying truth and hazy legal oversight of guardianship fraud, with people like Marla gaming the system of state parens patriae laws to drain the resources of the 1.5 million elderly Americans living under professional care.)
The payday looks suddenly more interesting when Marla discovers that Jennifer’s safe deposit box contains a pouch of chunky diamonds not listed on the insurance form. But it’s also revealed that Jennifer has ties to Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), a powerful career criminal with a taste for French patisserie. Turns out that the “cherry” was actually a “spider’s web,” observes Fran, the only character with a glimmer of morality.
After first sending his legal shark, Dean Ericson (Chris Messina, reliably savory), to try bribes and death threats, then assigning his goon Alexi (a droll Nicholas Logan) to break Jennifer out of the home where she is under lockdown with no visitors, Roman learns that Marla is not easily intimidated. She retaliates by having Jennifer’s meds, diet, sleep and exercise routines modified in punishing ways. “I’m the worst mistake you’ll ever make,” Jennifer tells Marla, a malicious hint of a smile peeking through her drugged-up fog.
The treacherous face-off between combatants ostensibly on opposite sides of the law wades into dark comedy territory, especially when Marla’s indignation is spiked by Roman resorting to thuggery rather than beating her fair and square in the courts. The inference that her entire scheme is more or less legal makes the whole scenario even queasier. “To make it in this country you need to be brave … and stupid and ruthless and focused,” says Marla while tied to a chair at Roman’s mercy. “Playing fair, being scared, that gets you nowhere. That gets you beat.”
The twisty acceleration of reciprocal payback moves is gruesome fun, if not always entirely plausible. But Blakeson and editor Mark Eckersley keep the pace zippy and the plotting taut, despite its density of incident. The sinister techno score by Marc Canham also helps maintain the momentum, while DP Doug Emmett (Sorry to Bother You) provides a sleek visual canvas.
LGBTQ audiences might question what the story gains by making Marla a lesbian, other than a faint whiff of old-school homophobia by adding an extra layer of otherness to a character unencumbered by ethics or compassion. Blakeson would likely argue that it’s when Roman sends his men after Fran that Marla strikes back with renewed determination.
And in a movie that makes a big point of women being just as cold-blooded as men, it seems ungenerous not to give Wiest’s grossly mistreated Jennifer the chance to exact her own revenge, especially after establishing that she’s no sweet old lady. Instead, she’s shuffled quietly off to the sidelines as the Marla-Roman smackdown takes a more cynical turn, suggesting the endless scope for legitimized corporate skullduggery in 21st century America.
Whether you find this entertaining or repugnant will depend on your stomach for a despicable reality. But the movie delivers unquestionable pleasures in the pairing of Pike’s monstrous manipulator with the always wonderful Dinklage’s cool, calm killer, a man too smart not to recognize and respect his adversary’s formidable intelligence.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Production company: Black Bear Pictures, Crimple Beck
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eiza González, Dianne Wiest, Chris Messina, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Macon Blair, Nicholas Logan, Damian Young, Alicia Witt
Director-screenwriter: J. Blakeson
Producers: Teddy Schwarzman, Ben Stillman, Michael Heimler
Executive producers: Andrea Ajemian, Sacha Guttenstein
Director of photography: Doug Emmett
Production designer: Michael Grasley
Costume designer: Deborah Newhall
Music: Mark Canham
Editor: Mark Eckersley
Casting: Jeanne McCarthy, Rori Bergman
Sales: CAA, STX International
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