by Andrew Wyatt on Feb 23, 2021

Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) is not a nice person. The thriving business that she has built with her professional and romantic partner, Fran (Eiza González), is only viable thanks to serious systemic failures in the American social safety net. Their con is, admittedly, an impressively cunning one: With the assistance of a corrupt physician (Alicia Witt) and other well-placed associates, Marla and Fran identify elderly individuals with sizable assets, minimal family, and early signs of dementia. They then petition the state to declare the patient mentally unfit and designate Marla’s company as their legal guardian. In short order, the victim is shunted off to a long-term-care facility, while Marla and Fran liquidate their assets and drain their bank accounts to cover the costs – taking a healthy percentage for themselves in the process. Publicly, Marla wraps herself in a cloak of earnest compassion and noble sacrifice, but in truth she’s just a scammer with a heart of ice, ruthlessly squeezing her clients for every penny and then cynically extolling her own venality as an exemplar of girlboss power.

Viewers who prefer crime thrillers with unequivocal Good Guys – or, at minimum, roguishly charming antiheroes – will probably want to sit this one out. Writer-director J Blakeson’s slick, feisty, and darkly comic new feature, I Care a Lot, serves up a story where virtually every character is a magnificent bastard. And none of them is quite so magnificent as Marla. It’s the sort of film where one ends up rooting for the protagonist not because they’re the most sympathetic or conflicted character, but because they are the sexy underdog in a pit full of ravenous jackals. This won’t be entirely surprising to anyone who has seen Blakeson’s delectably nasty debut feature, the one-room pressure cooker The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009). However, where that film relied on revelations and reversals to keep the characters (and the viewer) off-balance, I Care a Lot lays all its cards on the table. Marla and Fran are villains, and the thrill of the film lies not in seeing them get their karmic comeuppance, but in watching them get the better of more established, confident, and (allegedly) ruthless villains.

Like most stories about criminal fiascos, I Care a Lot begins with a score that seems too good to be true. Marla and Fran’s physician accomplice has recently identified a “cherry” in the person of a mild-mannered retiree named Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Weist). Jennifer has an elegant house filled with expensive furnishings, bank accounts flush with cash, and no living family members who might get in the way. Although this little old lady seems to be physically and mentally fit, the addition of some choice exaggerations to her medical records allows Marla’s company to seize control of her substantial assets. These include, to Marla and Fran’s surprise, a pouch of loose diamonds hidden away in a safe-deposit box. To the larcenous couple, it feels like they’ve hit the jackpot. The millions of dollars they can potentially wring from Jennifer promise the kind of opportunities that come with real wealth: relocation, reinvention, and independence.

There’s just one hitch: Jennifer isn’t who she appears to be. Confined to a nursing home and denied access to a phone, she ends up missing a standing monthly appointment with a sinister underworld boss (Peter Dinklage). His minions quickly puzzle out what has happened, and soon a dapper, smooth-talking attorney (Chris Messina) appears in Marla’s office. Although evasive about who exactly he represents, he bluntly offers Marla a hefty sum to relinquish her legal guardianship of Jennifer. When she breezily rebuffs this bribe, he responds with not-so-subtle physical threats, which only prompts Marla to dig her heels in that much harder. So begins a swiftly escalating battle of wits and wills as the unstoppable force of a murderous Russian kingpin-in-hiding collides with the unmovable object of a late-capitalist grifter who refuses to surrender – especially to a man.

I Care a Lot is, at bottom, a story about terrible people doing terrible things. The fact that it ends up being such a deliriously entertaining film is a testament to both the performers and to Blakeson’s effervescent and stylish direction. Marla isn’t exactly a stretch for Pike – the character isn’t too far afield from her star-making turn as Machiavellian missing person Amy Dunne in Gone Girl (2014) – but it’s undeniably a pleasure to watch her stride through the film, exuding her distinct brand of cool, ravenous confidence. Although Marla’s glib, venomous dialogue often sounds a little rehearsed, it’s easy enough to chalk this up to her uncanny poise and rigorous preparation. (She’s exactly the sort of person one can envision practicing her monologues in her head during spin class.) The rest of the cast is in similarly fine form, with Wiest a particular standout for how perfectly Jennifer’s sweet, befuddled demeanor conceals a profane, gleefully cruel she-wolf. This is plainly Pike’s showcase, however, with a crucial assist from her perfect blond bob and her impossibly chic outfits crafted by costume designer Deborah Newhall.

Blakeson, for his part, has come a long way since Alice Creed and his misbegotten YA sci-fi adaptation The 5th Wave (2016). I Care a Lot is a charmingly flashy, energetic film, one that’s clearly taking notes from Steven Soderbergh and Martin Scorsese. (Imagine the kinetic cool of the Ocean’s trilogy swirled with the manic noxiousness of The Wolf of Wall Street and you’re halfway there.) Although Blakeson doesn’t necessarily have the virtuosic command of those directors, he knows to how to use a surfeit of fizzy style to pull off the film’s most crucial sleight-of-hand: convincing the viewer, if only in the moment, that the elder-abusing kidnappers are actually this story’s scrappy heroes. Mark Eckerlry’s propulsive editing and Marc Canham’s crackling electronic score support this illusion, as do infectious needle drops from Death in Vegas, Wild Belle, and DJ Shadow. It’s these elements that help prevent the film’s latent, festering nihilism from poking through its bubbly surface.

The secret weapon in Blakeson’s arsenal, however, is the viewer’s own assumptions about the balance of power between Pike’s court-appointed corporate swindler and Dinklage’s menacing gangster overlord. The latter’s willingness to use violence to achieve his ends seems to position him as the more powerful and fearsome figure, but he is burdened by pride, sentiment, and the necessity of skulking in the shadows. Marla, meanwhile, walks in the sun. Rather than flouting the law, she wields it like a weapon, perversely boasting of her vampiric predations as if they were proof of her bottomless benevolence. Aging gangsters inevitably end up scrabbling for legitimacy, but Marla has mixed it into the mortar of her empire’s foundations. Perhaps most deviously, I Care a Lot subverts the viewer’s beliefs about the kind of villainy that demands the hardest of hearts. Is it a gangland execution in a vacant lot? Or is it extracting the wealth from society’s most vulnerable people like so much rich, black oil? Who, the film asks, is the real sociopath here?

Rating: B

I Care a Lot is now available to stream from Netflix.