Movie Review: Black Comedy/Thriller – I Care a Lot
Directed by J Blakeson
Written by J Blakeson
Starring Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eliza González, and Dianne Wiest
I was infuriated and a little terrified by the opening act of I Care A Lot, English writer/director J (Jonathan) Blakeson’s dark comic thriller currently airing on Netflix. If you have elderly parents or loved ones or are like me a senior yourself, you might find yourself similarly disturbed.
On a pleasantly sunny day in an upscale neighborhood, an elderly woman named Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) receives an unexpected knock on her door. There she meets a harshly coiffed but attractive young woman named Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) who sports one of those disingenuous smiles suburban Karens use just before they plunge the knife in. Marla announces that Jennifer has been declared an emergency ward of the state and that she’s been appointed her legal guardian. Jennifer, she informs her, must accompany her to a care facility. The unquestionably able and clear-minded Jennifer protests, claiming she needs no help and hasn’t heard a thing about it. With the police outside her door, she caves and leaves with the woman.
Once at the facility, her cell phone is confiscated, and she’s prevented from leaving by security. Frightened, confused, and sedated into compliance, she becomes isolated and withdrawn. In short time, Marla has already begun to sell Jennifer’s home and liquidate her assets on the pretense that she’ll use the money for her charge’s long-term care and to pay her own salary because naturally, caring is her job. But Marla is running a cruel scam. Colluding with Jennifer’s doctor and the head of the care home, she’s convinced a well-meaning but naïve judge that Jennifer is a danger to herself and requires immediate intervention.
Jennifer we learn is a “cherry,” a wealthy older person with no spouse or family and with good enough health to feed Marla’s greed for years. Soon, Jennifer’s picture is added to a wall containing photographs of each of Marla’s hapless victims whose assets she and her partner Fran (Eliza Gonzáles) will milk until dry, after which the patient will be warehoused in a low-quality state-run institution.
I had to take a break from the film at this point, in part because my heart was racing with anger, but also to verify via the internet whether that anger was justified. Could such a thing really happen? According to numerous sources, it not only can, but has. As chronicled in the 2017 documentary, The Guardians, which I had never heard of but watched immediately after the movie, a Clark County, Nevada woman named April Parks was arrested and later convicted for exploiting loopholes in the system and running a nearly identical operation, though her alleged conspirators have yet to be charged.
I found The Guardians a rather inept example of documentary filmmaking, but it did bring attention to the grotesque legal manipulation and corroboration between supposedly caring people that enabled Parks and others to feed like soul-sucking vampires on the lives and livelihoods of a vulnerable population. After her case, the state passed a comprehensive series of laws to prevent these kinds of crimes, yet similar scams are believed to still be prevalent throughout the country.
Once I returned to my movie however, I realized I’d been sent on a wild goose chase because I Care a Lot isn’t the least bit interested in being a socially conscious exposé of a broken and corrupt system. The opening scenes are merely a springboard, a setup for an entertaining, if ultimately empty, comic thriller as we learn there’s more to Ms. Peterson than meets the eye. Jennifer it seems, has connections. Soon the tables are turned, and Marla and Fran find themselves the victims.
This is not Blakeson’s first foray into thriller territory. His first feature film, the concise three-character suspenser The Disappearance of Alice Creed, employed a similar trope: a harrowing and rather unpleasant first act followed by an unexpected and somewhat ludicrous turn of events (not to mention a ski mask mouth opening sized plot hole that had me scratching my head for days). Yet Alice manages to stir up some genuinely nerve-racking suspense, largely because its characters despite their bad deeds remain compelling.
But when Blakeson turns up the thriller dial in I Care’s second act, the thrills don’t come. This is in part because by then his twisty plot has so transcended the realm of believability that it’s hard to take it as anything but camp. But it’s also because his protagonists are not even remotely sympathetic. Even in the post Scorsese age of antiheroes where we’re expected to root for serial killers like Travis Bickle and TV’s Dexter, ruthless con artists who gleefully destroy the lives of the elderly seem especially difficult to root for. It feels one step above being asked to root for a pedophile. Anton Chigurh was more relatable.
Some bloggers have suggested that the relationship between Marla and Fran is a positive, framing it as a classic lesbian love story and a great romance. I get it. A movie about two strong, self-determined gay women in complete control of their lives remains a sad rarity in mainstream movies today. And without question, the scenes between Pike and Gonzáles are especially convincing. (The days of popular actors holding back in intimate gay scenes to protect their careers and their hetero egos, seems mercifully over). But there’s a difference between steamy and romantic. Personally, I like my gay romances to not be between two sociopaths. At least my favorite gay TV couple, Oz’s Chris Keller and Tobias Beecher, only featured one psychopath while the other was merely a self-hating drunk… It’s a long road to Call Me by Your Name, folks.
I Care a Lot works best when it focuses on being a droll black comedy targeting Capitalism and the greed and corruption that fester so easily within it. Blakeson’s script cuts deepest in the film’s two funniest scenes which occur successively in the film. Marla and a sleazy lawyer (the hilarious Chris Messina) playfully acknowledge their true motives through a series of veiled threats and barely disguised violent innuendo that’s all smiles and bad intentions. A similar scene follows, this time between Marla and Jennifer. Wiest, a two-time Oscar winner almost steals the show here, moving from melancholy to menacing in but a glorious instant.
But Blakeson’s pièce de résistance is Marla herself. Played with ferocious intensity by the masterful Pike, she’s a classic post Trump era narcissist villain. You want to punch her in the face, but you can’t take your eyes off her. This is a character the actress knows well, bearing more than a few similarities to her Oscar nominated work in David Fincher’s gripping Gone Girl. “There’s no such thing as good people,” she says in the film’s opening monologue, a speech that sounds like something from another film about greed, the Reagan era Wall Street. “I am a fucking lioness,” she proclaims. “I’ve been poor, and it doesn’t agree with me.” But Gordon Gekko was a pussy next to the shameless Marla.
As one would expect in a film filled with twists and turns, the ending has a surprise or two as well. But the film’s final twist, though properly foreshadowed and delivering a certain sense of justice, effectively defangs the shark-toothed satire immediately preceding it. It plays like one of those studio-ordered reshoots tacked on after a test run in Peoria. It’s the kind of mistake less experienced filmmakers, perhaps under studio pressure, tend to make, but it’s an easy one to forgive. I Care a Lot is fun throughout, absurdities and all. And Blakeson, not quite yet a master, is a writer/director worth keeping a hopeful eye on.