Anyone who likes their movies to have “someone to root for” should stay far away from J Blakeson’s unapologetically sour and cynical neo-noir I Care A Lot. This is the story of a irredeemable villain: a clever grifter named Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), who has figured out a way to become the legal guardian for dozens of elderly men and women, funneling their bank accounts and valuables into her own pockets. Her scam works like gangbusters, until she crosses someone who has the resources to challenge her. That unlikely hero? Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), a cutthroat drug kingpin who has been living almost completely off the grid, with piles of money, a staff of killers at his command, and a labor force of immigrants forced to risk their lives smuggling his narcotics. So who’s the good guy here?
How about J Blakeson? In 2009, this talented British writer-director made his feature filmmaking debut with The Disappearance Of Alice Creed, a finely crafted low-budget thriller with a darkly comic streak, about an icy kidnapper who thinks he’s mapped out every possible complication, until he discovers that both his partner and their victim are keeping dangerous secrets. The film got good reviews, but it’s taken over a decade for Blakeson to produce a proper follow-up. In the interim, he directed (but didn’t write) the widely panned 2016 science-fiction film The 5th Wave and the 2017 HBO/BBC One miniseries Gunpowder, neither of which was much like Alice Creed. I Care A Lot, on the other hand, hits a lot of the same beats as Blakeson’s breakthrough, from its impressively twisty plot to its fascinatingly foul characters.
Pike is an absolute delight as Marla, a terrible person but wonderful company. Alongside assistant and lover Fran (Eiza González), Marla struts confidently through a world of judges, lawyers, nurses, and administrators, taking advantage of society’s general lack of interest in quality elder care. Marla and Fran look for people nearing the end of their lives who own property, who have a decent social security and pension income, and who aren’t in close contact with their relatives. By positioning herself as a concerned Good Samaritan in court—and by making sure that her sources in geriatric medicine get paid off—Marla is able to get these senior citizens declared incompetent, and can then take enough of their money to live like a swell. What’s she’s doing is unconscionable, and yet it’s pretty exciting to watch her do it, in the same way that it’s fun to fun to see how cable TV antiheroes like Saul Goodman out-think their opposition.
The trouble for Marla in I Care A Lot starts when she stumbles across Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), a woman with no apparent attachments, who lives alone in a nice house and has access to a safety deposit box containing precious gems. Though Jennifer is reasonably healthy and mentally fit, Marla greases a lot of palms to get her committed to a long-term care facility (and to get her prescribed heavy drugs, so she’ll be too numb to balk). What she doesn’t expect is that Roman—a man who, according to all available records, has been dead for years—has a personal connection both to the old lady and her hidden treasure.
What follows is a true battle of the bastards, as Roman first tries to use the law (in the form of his smarmy attorney, played by a perfectly cast Chris Messina) to expose Marla’s racket, then later works to destroy her and Fran using his hired muscle. Marla, meanwhile, actively trolls Roman, certain that either he won’t risk revealing himself or that if he does, she can trap him. They trade blows throughout the bulk of the film, getting more vicious with each punch.
There is a point to all this, sort of. I Care A Lot can be read as a commentary on how American institutions are easily corruptible because the people who keep them running are underpaid and largely unmonitored. The characters of Marla and Fran also represent a certain kind of authoritarian arrogance that should be familiar to anyone who’s lived through the last five years. They do what they want because they know that if they’re brazen enough, no one will be able to muster the courage or the will to stand up against them.
But let’s not make too many great claims here. I Care A Lot isn’t some brilliantly subversive social satire. It’s a tightly constructed, masterfully acted, lightly stylish little caper picture, which revels in just how mean it can be. It’s not essential, and it’s not for everybody. But for those who prefer their pulp to carry the faint aroma of moral rot, this movie is a real treat.