Marla thinks she’s cracked the code on the perfect con. Positioning herself as a legal guardian, she manipulates elderly people into positions of utter helplessness so that she can take power over their estates. She gains control over their assets, puts them in an old folks’ home, then robs them blind. The best part of the operation is that, give or take a few machinations, it’s all supported by the state, and Marla gets to take credit as the caring angel of the vulnerable. She and her partner Fran (Eiza Gonzalez) think they’ve stumbled across a golden goose in the form of Jennifer Peterson, a lonely old lady with lots of savings and no family or friends to speak of. It’s all going well until the Russian mafia and a deeply vindictive crime lord (Peter Dinklage) get involved.
It’s strange to think of both Rosamund Pike and Peter Dinklage as underrated. She’s an Oscar nominee and he has rows of Emmys on a shelf somewhere, and it’s not as if their names are strange or unknown to the general public. Yet both actors, as frequently celebrated as they are by the industry and public at large, still feel like hidden gems, diamonds in the rough who seldom get any real time to shine. Pike spent years being a reliable supporting player until Gone Girl was intended to send her into the stratospheres of fame. Even with the awards acclaim, she seemed short of the top spots, and follow-up roles have either fizzled (Radioactive) or gone unseen by most viewers (A Private War). Hollywood, it seems, is rather baffled by her brand of flinty charm, that abrasive edge that dares you to find her characters likable or relatable. Dinklage, meanwhile, shall forever be heralded for bringing Tyrion Lannister to life, even after Game of Thrones stopped knowing what to do with the character, but cinema seems utterly bereft with ideas of how to use him effectively. So, blessed be to J Blakeson’s I Care a Lot, a bleakly funny twist on the conventional thriller that gives both actors some real meat to chew on.
Pike earned a lot of column inches for her role as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl and the ways that twisty film managed to coax begrudging respect out of its audiences for a truly monstrous character. Yeah, she’s evil but she did have a point about the Cool Girl stuff, right? I Care a Lot is less concerned with such narrative unreliability. It lays it all out for the audience: Marla is evil. She’s cold, callous, utterly unconcerned with the lives of others, especially those she manipulates, and her startling effectiveness at executing such a heinous con only further condemns her. There’s no weepy backstory to explain her nastiness or moment of humility to offer a new shade to her character. No, that would undercut the bile of this film, and Marla would hate such tawdriness. In a couple of scenes, she defends herself with some cheap #girlboss CEO-style feminist rhetoric, the usual deflection nonsense about how she’s just a hard-working woman getting sh*t done. Nobody buys it, not even Marla.
Pike has a blast with this role and mercifully never tries even once to soften her razor-sharp edges. This is a woman who is a master manipulator, one who can flip from charming to chilling without any effort, and the condescending lilt she puts in her voice when talking to the elderly people she’s gaslighting is disturbing stuff. It’s also a strange delight to see a film like this have a genuinely horrible protagonist who is also openly gay and neither she nor her crimes are exclusively defined by her sexuality. She’s ably matched by Dinklage, who in turn is playing a total monster, only his perversions against humanity are in the area of casual murder and sex-trafficking. But even monsters love their mothers, and that’s what brings Dinklage’s gangster to the attention of Marla. It’s fascinating to watch him inhabit this soulless individual who is still emotionally clinging to his family, albeit in ways that one wouldn’t typically suggest to those in peril. A downside of the film is that we just don’t get enough of Pike and Dinklage together, because the brief scenes we do see them face off against one another are top-notch. Pair these two together more often, please!
I Care a Lot eschews most of the traditional conventions of the thriller genre: It’s a cold and often off-putting film with a shriveled black heart at its core. There are no stylized shoot-ups or cool guys plotting labyrinthine schemes. The thrill here, so to speak, is in the astounding shock of this immensely painful con’s legality. The system does allow for people to be stripped of their autonomy in this way, ‘for your own good.’ Mrs. Peterson, played by the legendary Dianne Wiest with sly malice underneath that sweetness, is put through hell not only by Marla but by an entire circle of complicit figures: Doctors, lawyers, judges, the nursing home bosses, to name but a few. Each and every one of them has bought into Marla’s painfully evil scheme for their own profit, and the sad part is that it’s ridiculously easy to go through with because capitalism is built upon the willful exploitation of the vulnerable.
I Care a Lot is a nasty movie in the best ways possible. A scathingly funny dark comedy with a cold beating heart that has no interest in romanticizing its villains, this may be a hard sell to the masses, especially at a time when we may not exactly be craving a story about bad people succeeding because the system is designed for their success. For those with the stomach, this too-real tale has its worth.
I Care a Lot made its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Gala Presentations Roster.
Toronto International Film Festival runs September 10-19. For more on how you can participate, visit the TIFF website.
Epidemiologists do not think it’s safe yet to go to theaters even with social distancing and safety measures in place. This review is not an endorsement or suggestion otherwise. Our reviewers are covering the films remotely with the use of screening links.
Header Image Source: TIFF