How are we supposed to feel about Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), the sociopathic con artist with the bob so severe it could cut glass, who’s at the center of J Blakeson’s I Care a Lot? She’s meant to be a villain we love to hate—and that checks out, partly because of Pike’s darkly charismatic performance. But are we also supposed to secretly root for her? Worse still, are we supposed to see her as a “you go, girl”-style feminist hero, who bucked the capitalist patriarchy and triumphantly got what was coming to her? Because if that’s the case, well, epic fail.
In a voiceover, Marla tells us that there are predators and prey, lambs and lions, people who take and those getting took. “I’ve been poor,” she says dryly. “It didn’t agree with me.”
So she has devised an elaborate con: She runs a center that specializes in court-appointed guardianships of seniors. She gets a doctor on the take (Alicia Witt) to give perfectly healthy seniors a diagnosis of dementia. Then, medical affidavit in tow, she gets a court to appoint her the senior’s official guardian. Also in Marla’s back pocket? The manager of a senior care facility (Damian Young), who makes sure those bilked elders have no access to phones, the Internet, or the outside world. From there, she systematically takes over the seniors’ assets—their homes, their savings, their possessions.
It’s a truly odious crime—and I’m not quite sure if the movie realizes how viscerally we will respond to it. There’s a great cinematic tradition of rooting for thieves. Elder abuse, however, is a bridge too far.
As the film begins, we see a crazed man (Macon Blair) trying to get into the eldercare facility. He’s clearly at his wit’s end—he hurls a fire extinguisher at a plexiglass window—and has to be subdued by the security guards. Then we see Marla in court with him. Turns out, his mother, Mrs. Feldstrom, is one of the seniors under her “care.” Marla calmly explains to the overly credulous judge (Isaiah Witlock Jr.) that that the mother doesn’t want to see her son, that his presence agitates her, and that he’s obviously out of control (“Didn’t you recently vandalize a reception area?”). As for selling the old woman’s house and assets? She has to pay herself, doesn’t she? She’s a professional.
So far, we have nothing but sympathy for this poor man whose mother has essentially been kidnapped. However, after the court rules in favor of Marla, he storms after her.
“Hey bitch!” he screams. “You, bitch! Bitch!”
She instructs him to use her name.
“I hope you get raped!” he sputters. “And I hope you get murdered!”
Then he spits on her.
“Does it sting more because I’m a woman?” Marla says. She then tells Feldstrom, in rather vivid language, exactly what she will do to his male anatomy if he ever threatens or touches her again. If there was an audience, one could imagine them cheering her.
What to do with that scene? Of course, Feldstrom has every reason to be furious. But when you wield the B-word and suggest that a woman be raped, you’re not just a grieving son, you’re a possible misogynist. Certainly, the film knows that. That’s why they frame it that way. (“Does it sting more because I’m a woman?”) And suddenly the film puts us in the awkward position of choosing between a female sociopath and a man who has just suggested that a woman get raped.
The most obvious answer is this: The film is amoral. There are no heroes, something that will become more clear as the film goes on. Even our would-be hero, Feldstrom, isn’t really a good guy. But I do think the film wants to have its cake and eat it too—depict Marla as both a cold-hearted villain and an avenging feminist.
Before I move off this scene—I swear, I’m about to—I want to go back to that credulous judge. Apparently, he’s not on Marla’s payroll, which makes his behavior all the more improbable. Because Marla couldn’t look more villainous if she tried. On top of the aforementioned severe bob, she dresses in power suits and regards most everyone with a cool sneer. She drags on vape pipes with the studied insouciance of a 21st-century femme fatale. One would think, if she was trying to perpetuate the con that she’s a nurturer and caregiver, she might dress a bit more the part. Actually, if she wore gingham in court and power suits in real life, it would be a lot funnier. But I digress…
To its credit, the film does set up the perfect conflict: Marla takes control over a wealthy, unmarried woman named Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) whom she thinks is a “cherry”—a person with no living family or beneficiaries. Turns out, this time, she picked the wrong senior (!). Peterson has a Russian mafia son, Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage)—with a penchant for smoothies, expensive French pastry, and murdering his enemies—who is desperate to get his mother back.
In one of the film’s best scenes, Lunyov sends his lawyer (Chris Messina) to convince Marla to give up control of Peterson. The two circle each other, each recognizing a fellow shark, both smiling malevolently, waiting for the other to flinch. Neither does, not even when the lawyer offers to bribe her with $300,000. Yes, she can be bought, but it will take a hell of a lot more than that.
The film makes another crucial error later in the film. Without giving away the specifics, Marla admits she doesn’t fear death. This is supposed to confirm what a fearless badass she is, but it lowers the stakes of her fate even further. Why are we supposed to care if Marla lives or dies if she doesn’t herself?
That said, the film does give Marla one humanizing aspect—her love of her gorgeous girlfriend and occasional partner in crime Fran (Elza González). I mean, I guess she loves her. We are meant to merely accept this love at face value—we get to see a few glimpses of PG-13 sexytime but beyond that, the relationship is never explored. To me, that’s part of what makes the film seem undercooked. It’s all surface, moving along briskly, scoring cool points (Peter Dinklage in a funny beard!), but rarely pausing to consider any human feeling or motivation. Oddly, the Jennifer Peterson character, whose fate we are invested in, all but disappears midway through the film. Something about the film’s ultracool surfaces has a numbing effect. It feels airless.
I Care a Lot is stuck in a kind of limbo. It should’ve either been more nasty or less nasty. Had it truly leaned into Marla’s awfulness, it might’ve scored more black comedy points. Had it made Marla more human, we might have found ourselves rooting for her, despite ourselves. Instead, it pulls its punches, at strange times. It’s almost as if I wasn’t alone in my ambivalence toward Marla—the filmmakers don’t quite know what to make of her either.
I Care a Lot is now streaming on Netflix.