There’s nothing like a Rosamund Pike sociopath performance to ready you for a mean-spirited romp. Her Gone Girl turn was Oscar-worthy and if that’s the niche it takes to get her front-and-center in films, we’d be lucky if every grinning high-fashion ghoul was given over to her thrillingly icy control. Netflix’s I Care A Lot, writer/director J Blakeson’s tight crime thriller, goes off the rails in various ways—though it never leaves behind its central viciousness and gives us plenty of Pike as it works us over. That said, the further it gets from its rancid, yet tightly constructed nucleus, the harder it is to appreciate its unabashedly rotten style.
Romantic and business partners Marla and Fran (Pike and Eiza González), both perfectly hateable and smug, run an elder care scam where they obtain legal guardianship of unwitting victims and check them into facilities with the help of doctors, judges and managers of varying complicity. With the victims out of the way, the pair can sell off their estates without resistance—all under the guise of providing the best care available.
It’s plain that these indoor-sunglasses-wearing, high-fiving, chain-vaping girlboss fraudsters have quite the game going. It’s even more plain that they’re able to carry on because of interlocking systems easily exploited by those with enough ambition and a lack of scruples. As with most critiques of capitalism and the various other systems into which its poisonous fingers creep, it’s made clear that white collar business and white collar crime are often indistinguishable. Here, everyone’s in on it, either straight-up evil or so naïve that they may as well be. Though an element or two might make you think a character is a degree or two dumber/smarter than they’re being played, the script’s sharp enough to make most of the scheme feel airtight.
Clearly, as Marla and Fran go about their work in the broadest of daylight, they feel untouchable. They maintain their roster as a striking wall of faces, each one marked by color-coded stickers. Even rich, independent old ladies—the women the pair see as heroes, the women they will eventually age into—are perfect victims. It’s a classic case of the victimizers being incapable of seeing themselves as victims—the same lack of empathy afflicting Wall Street, septuagenarian politicians and their ilk. But when Marla and Fran go after one of these perfect victims, Jennifer (Dianne Wiest), they quickly become capable…seeing as she has ties to the mob. Yes, her son is the wonderfully named Roman Lunyov (a grumbly Peter Dinklage, whose facial expressions squirm all around his epic goatee) and kidnapping a mobster’s mom seems ill-advised at best.
When Jennifer is taken and we see the geriatric abduction process start to finish, Blakeson cranks the discomfort. It’s despicable stuff, made as insufferable as possible by its actresses’ shit-eating grins and the electronica behind it all thrumming like a headache. Slo-mo montages—with the over-the-top colors and stretched smiling faces of an uncomfortable dream that doesn’t click as a nightmare until you’re in too deep to get yourself out—take us through the nuts and bolts. The hyper-styled crooks are shot with an ethereal glow by cinematographer Doug Emmett, whose blend of light and color create a harsh brightness just as off-putting as the soundscape. It takes the tropical palette of retirement doc Some Kind of Heaven and makes it far more sinister: More Escape from Tomorrow than Disney World.
When Lunyov enters the picture, you get an ironic sense of hope: Ah, a mob boss! Finally someone who can cut through this madness! The camera starts tracking a little more realistically (maintaining the film’s sense of style but waking it up to cold hard reality) and the colors calm down. That’s the kind of black-hearted joke I Care A Lot’s built on, and it’s when Lunyov’s methods collide with Marla and Fran’s machine that the film is at its best.
Blakeson proves highly capable not only at marrying cinematic staples (courtroom drama, glossy scams, gritty crime thrills) but laying out a clear system of rules. The best scenes in the movie involve Lunyov’s lawyer (Chris Messina), his first line of response. Messina is a showcase of smarm, a god of glib, completely delicious top to bottom—and his wheeling and dealing works beyond his charisma, because now we already understand the safe he’s trying to crack, the prison he’s trying to break. The narrative set-up plays perfectly in these scenes, which Messina and Pike greedily devour.
Leaving that established game, opening a new one mid-movie without bothering to look at the rules—that’s where I Care A Lot wobbles. The film spirals out of control in its third act, turning into some kind of odd and unearned super-spy nonsense where characters’ decisions begin—for the first time in the film—to feel untethered from its reality. Plot takes over and things immediately get very, very silly.
That’s a shame, because the whole ensemble cuts deep—the great Wiest wields glee like a weapon, Dinklage channels Jack Dorsey in his unkempt facial hair and upper-crust eccentricities, and Pike’s utter power leads them all. There may be people who can manage a smile tinier or nastier than Pike, but they’re few and far between—and she could make them believe that hers was better by half. The way she walks, the way she treats her vape like life support, even the way she thinks things through with just her eyes in close-ups—Pike builds Marla’s pride into every facet. Even one of Lunyov’s lackeys (Nicholas Logan) stands out quite a bit in a striking performance of what’s mostly a perfunctory role. He also has the same haircut as Pike, which just seems to be a happy accident. If anything, González is the weak link in the cast and that’s only because the script writes her character into existence purely for Marla’s sake: A tether to human emotion and a plot-pushing presence.
I Care A Lot has all the makings of an imperfect and crooked Soderbergh caper, with the added novelty of cruel, selfish, loving and even grotesque central women—Marla’s gaping maw, propped wide as she gets a tooth reinserted, is par for the course here, image-wise. Some of the film’s punchy dialogue pops us on the nose now and again with its Themes (specifically its notes on sexism and the American Dream), but if you’re willing to look past that and a contrived half-hour detour, I Care A Lot is a savvy and wicked endeavor peppered with personality.
Director: J Blakeson
Writer: J Blakeson
Stars: Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eiza González, Chris Messina, Dianne Wiest
Release Date: February 19, 2021 (Netflix)
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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