Marla (Rosamund Pike) is a ruthless con artist who preys upon the elderly. The film opens with her successfully defending a case; draining an elderly woman of her assets, freedom and access to her sole relative. Marla parasitically installs herself in the lives of her clients as their court mandated guardian, allowing her to take complete control of their lives. This allows her to completely destroy them. However she bites off more than she can swallow when she decides to victimise Jennifer Peterson (Diane Weist), who’s violent mafia son (Peter Dinklage) will pose a threat to her vampiric enterprise.
I Care A Lot is a film to get the blood pumping. Partially due to the tense suspense sequences that are deftly handled by writer-director J Blakeson but mainly because this is a film intended to make you angry. The central con is infuriating as it sees our main characters praying upon the weakest members of our society, people we know are regularly preyed upon by sharks and villains. If the film intended for us to feel anything other than pure hatred for those responsible for these injustices, it would be truly misguided.
Consequently we spend the film’s runtime waiting for justice and growing more and more frustrated as it is teased but withheld. The drama unfolds and threatens to punish our characters for their sins but as their persecutors prove to be just as villainous as their quarry, there’s no satisfaction to be found. There are no objective or morally sound figures to even voice disapproval of these horrific actions.
This is of course all deliberate. The film is a scathing critique of the American Dream and the concept of individual enterprise. Marla is looking out for herself and profiting from a system that profits from the disempowerment of elderly men and women. Perhaps the most reprehensible character in the entire film is the judge, convincingly portrayed by Isiah Whitlock Jr., who has nothing to gain from this con but is an essential part of its operation. He is motivated solely by his own indifference. It is this indifference that allows the ghouls at the films heart to ply their dark trade.
But the film and its message would be easier to digest if any of its characters were relatable or sympathetic. We have no way in to Marla as a character. She might have adopted this horrific lifestyle out of necessity but the film does not adequately demonstrate the hardships she is fleeing, nor does it suggest any remorse. She is part of a loving relationship with Eiza Gonzalez’ Fran but she herself is completely compliant in the crimes committed. She’s either indifferent to the suffering of those she helps prey upon or equally scornful of the weak. Their relationship is that of two parasites.
There is, however, a gendered aspect to the morality of the film. Marla insinuates that she has experienced poverty, parental abuse and, perhaps crucially, mistreatment by men. She characterises the only societal criticism we see levelled at her in the film as that of a frustrated man hitting out a woman. Is Marla’s villainy merely an expression of her complete disempowerment as a woman? Left with no morally justifiable options she becomes a monster to survive a mans world? Some kind of well meaning foil would make this point easier to swallow, otherwise it’s just a very bitter and unpleasant take on empowerment.
Perhaps this is all an issue of tone. This is clearly a black comedy and a satire of American statutory care but the savagery of the central con and the ruthless efficiency of the Marla riles the audience too much. It’s too provocatively worrying to be funny. Were the film more overtly comedic it would also forgive some of the plot contrivances, especially in the third act. These awkward machinations actually undermine the satirical aspect of the film. Surely you’d need to get more than a crooked doctor and a greedy care home manager to operate a con like this. It rings sadly true, but also feels like an exaggeration which does a disservice to the films central premise.
The film would not be anywhere near as powerful if not for the lead performance from Rosamund Pike. Her insincere smile and vacant gaze is a perfect false face that drops in a moment to reveal the truly callous and vindictive beast within. The closest the film comes to humanising her are entirely down to the strength of Pike’s performance. There’s a heartbreak and vulnerability buried deep with her cynicism that the film leaves tragically unexplored. She is supported by a captivatingly sinister turn from Peter Dinklage and a wonderfully multifaceted performance by Diane Weist. In a film that doesn’t quite succeed at what it wants to be, the performances are all assured and engaging.
I Care A Lot is not an easy watch. In fact I do hope to never see it again. It has disturbed me more effectively than most horror films. But I cant say it wasn’t deeply affecting and tense. It’s shaken me out of a malaise that is far too easily adopted in these tedious times. The film got me angry. Angry about the indifference of systems intended to protect the vulnerable, angry about the cruelty of con artists and deeply afraid of a model of capitalism that generates and benefits monsters. It’s a very effective film, but you may not like what its trying to do to you.