Not since Gone Girl has Rosamund Pike been so perilously irresistible. All toothy grins and smiling eyes, Pike’s Marla Grayson enters every room in I Care a Lot as a ball of sunshine. But also like the sun, if you get too close to this woman, she’ll burn you alive—all while dipping into your savings account and selling the family home. That’s literally her job as a legal guardian: She takes care of people the state deems incapable of caring for themselves… and she’s made a hell of a mint doing it.
“You’re a robber,” bemoans Dianne Wiest at one point in the film, aghast that Marla convinced a court to throw her in a retirement home. “I’m your guardian,” Marla insists. But Wiest’s nice little old lady has the right of it. “You’re my guardian robber.”
Such are the pitch black joys of writer-director J Blakeson’s I Care a Lot, which just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Here is a dark comedy with humor so grim that even a hangman might wince. And each of the intentional cringes inflicted underscores an up to the minute vision of modern day capitalism. Consider Pike only breaks character around her marks long enough to inhale a puff on her vape pen. It’s like watching a shark take five while cornering its next meal. This is a devilish side Pike has explored before, but not with so much blunt glee. She’s an unstoppable force of exploitative want, at least until she finally meets her rock in the form of Peter Dinklage—an unlikely mob boss with shady ties to Wiest’s suddenly not-so-sweet little old lady.
This is just one of the multiple narrative swerves that make I Care a Lot a largely twisty pleasure. And the first act is potent enough on its own, introducing us to Marla as she demolishes an adult son in court; he’s there to feebly demand the right to see his mother, whom Marla has cordoned off in a nursing home like a warden abusing the solitary confinement box. Not that the son comes off much better. Part of the movie’s virtue is that no character is particularly likable, even as they’re all eminently watchable.
Take Marla and her partner at home and the office, Fran (Eiza González). The pair are introduced as relentless in their hunger to build a system in which dozens of seniors are little more than warm bodies for the foundations of a small-time empire that would be criminal in any other society. Yet their greed is but a drop in the movie’s ocean. And that sea is crawling with other predators who likewise exude a dry, ironic detachment to all incoming threats.
Thus emerges Dinklage’s Roman from the other corner. He’s an immaculate, compact figure who hides behind his groomed beard and chic bangs. It’s an unexpected but quite welcome representation of old school patriarchy, as Roman in his expensive suits and mouthfuls of artisanal pastries insists he wants to keep his hands clean, even while thirsting to pull the trigger. It certainly makes for a new texture to Dinklage’s ability to display sincere, thwarted longing when that desire involves murder.
The unlikely pairing of these two, which culminates in slow boiling but inevitable violence, makes for a pressure cooker that has a case of the giggles. It also marks a homecoming for Blakeson who landed a splash at TIFF many years ago with the underrated thriller The Disappearance of Alice Creed (2009). After a decade that got sidetracked with blander studio fare, he confirms he still has that Swiss Army watch ability to plot, and perhaps over-plot, fiendish romps.
Indeed, I Care a Lot features a series of satisfying, and often appropriately infuriating, shocks. Based on an apparent actual loophole in the legal system that’s been abused many times over, the movie’s depiction of corrupt legal guardians locking away seniors from their families, homes, and even cellphones can be chilling. And its subsequent showdowns between Marla and Roman is thereby exhilarating. Yet as the multitude of improbable plot contours mount, what once was shocking increasingly becomes incredulous during the third act, particularly as broad plot contrivances end up supplanting terrific character work in the margins like Wiest, who goes from befuddled to bestial in her justified need for revenge.
One or two fewer plot escalations would’ve benefitted I Care a Lot, but when the ultimate denouement(s) are this satisfying, and the sleek aesthetic is overall so intoxicating, it’s impossible not to get suckered in. With its juxtaposition of warm lighting and a chilly synthesized score by Marc Canham, this is a film that thrives from living in uncomfortable paradoxes, just as it’s buoyed by featuring protagonists who are as repellent as the villains. But then that might be because they’re all just Americans here.
Perhaps one of the film’s other delicious supporting performances summarized it best. Appearing briefly in the movie as Roman’s slick lawyer with even slicker threats, Chris Messina shows up just long enough to leave a trail of oil residue on the frame. He also attempts, unconvincingly, to threaten Marla. As if made of unbreakable steel, nothing can shake Pike’s personification of capitalistic id in its most base, undiluted form. Yet as Messina tries, he can’t help but marvel at her greed. “If your whole enterprise isn’t the perfect example of the American Dream, I don’t know what is.”
It’s that exact dreamy quality that makes I Care a Lot so amusing and, ultimately, horrifying.
I Care a Lot premiered Sept. 12 at the Toronto International Film Festival.