I Care A Lot plays a tough game. It’s not an unfamiliar one, not by a long shot, but that doesn’t make it easy to stomach. A tale of greed and capitalism that can’t even be called allegory since it speaks of its themes directly, it’s a story of terrible people doing terrible things, and you’re not supposed to feel good about any of it.
Front and center of the horror show is Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), introduced as a small-time swindler of the elderly under her guardianship. It’s a racket that involves willing and unwilling players in the legal and medical fields, and the ease with which Marla navigates this web hints at untapped potential for true villany. Not that incapacitating healthy people, cutting them off from their loved ones, and bleeding them dry isn’t downright evil, but it’s small potatoes in a world where unfeeling ruthlessness could earn you billions if you know the right people.
Pike, who most will recognize from Gone Girl, is asked to do many of the same things she did in that breakout role. Her Marla is bold, calculating, and terrifyingly good at feigning emotions, but mostly she’s a clear-eyed observer of the world around her who’s tired of being at the bottom of its games. I suppose this is a Pike specialty now, one that she is undeniably good at but has yet to be utilized to its full potential. Much like Gone Girl, I Care A Lot puts many of the world’s injustices and double standards under a microscope, but it also has odd blind spots that undercuts its messaging and hangs the bitter coldness of Pike’s character out to dry.
The misunderstandings that permeate I Care A Lot are exemplified pretty early on with a line meant to ground these extraordinarily heinous events in the real world. After Marla pulls her new target, Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) out of her home with ease, a character makes a reference to the Milgram experiment as a way to explain people’s acquiescence to authority. A study that showed people would give electric shocks up to a lethal level if instructed, the reference works in passing but fails to capture what’s really going on. The other disturbing study you learn in psych 101 ends up being more apt: the Stanford prison experiment, which showed not only people’s acquiescence to authority but also the way unchecked power spins out of control. I Care A Lot is about a system, a cruel, deadly one with few checks in place, but it doesn’t seem able to grasp that big of a picture.
And there’s other strange ways writer/director J Blakeson seems to be playing with what he views (and I agree) is a corrupt system. Any cursory glance at the “winners” of capitalism reveals a pretty homogeneous group. Marla and her romantic and business partner, Fran (Eiza González), are not this for a variety of reasons, nor is the ruthless adversary they drudge up by targeting Jennifer, Roman (Peter Dinklage). Some of these differences are pointedly used (also like Gone Girl, this movie plays with feminism in some knowingly and unknowingly grotesque ways) while others seem more casually thrown in. What all of this adds to Blakeson’s point is murky at best, and given the way the system crushes those who don’t fit in the real world, it’s an incredibly odd thing to add to this tale with so little comment.
Mostly, though, Blakeson captures the ugliness of the system and the personalities of those who thrive in it well, and he’s not afraid to rub your face in it. This is a movie that takes its time, ratcheting up tension in ways that are remarkably controlled and grounded. No one is out there doing superhuman things to stay ahead, and their moments of failure are humorously linked to the monotonous grind of the everyday, even if your everyday involves kidnapping, torturing, and killing people.
That glint of fun is its saving grace, even if it is buried pretty deep in the grime. Pike, as per usual, has fun playing off the sheeples she encounters along the way, and Dinklage’s tired intelligence is also put to good use. But it’s the brief turn from Chris Messina as the slimiest of lawyers who really lights up the screen, as does all of the outfits costume designer Deborah Newhall puts him and the rest of the cast in.
The fine-tuned plot and bits of fun make I Care A Lot easy to watch, even if you do want to get as far away from the people in the film as possible. What causes it to diminish quickly is just how little there is behind it all. Its message is so clear and is delivered with so little nuance that it will make you think for far less time than it will make you feel bad, and while you should feel bad about the system it makes you wallow in, you should be thinking about it, too.
Release: currently available on Netflix
Director: J Blakeson
Writers: J Blakeson
Cast: Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eiza González, Dianne Wiest, and Chris Messina