This time our villainess has dispensed with The Cool Girl and has picked up a different stereotype of femininity — The Carer. Men can’t see through her nurturing exterior. She’s a sociopath, but in a professional, polished package, so you’d never expect it.
Marla Grayson acts as a legal guardian to seniors, making financial and medical decisions for those whose family’s can’t help. But Marla is actually scamming these wards of the state, putting them in expensive care homes, flipping their houses and selling their estates, alongside Fran, her investigator/analyst/fixer girlfriend.
So this is a comedy?
When the set up is as tasteless as a dead baby joke, as J Blakeson’s film is, some people are just not going to want to stick around for the punchline. That’s how I felt anyway, trying to sit still for a story where the protagonist is a grifting, exploitative elder abuser. Am I too sensitive? Because I feel like senior abuse in our extremely broken health care system is too real to be humorous.
It wasn’t until a third of the way through a disturbingly sociopathic film, whose attempts at irony or satire fell just short of actually forcing a smile or a laugh, that the film’s humor finally broke through.
Peter Dinklage shows up playing a mysterious mob boss, a little bit unhinged and universally threatening if things don’t go according to his plan. His incompetent henchmen provide a bit of madcap comic relief. Chris Messina enters as a verbose and eloquent Saul Goodman-type, but out of a Coen Brothers script. OK, you’ve worn me down, Blakeson. I will ride with your dead-baby-joke-level script.
With time, the unlikeable and repulsive Marla becomes more watchable. It helps that the chemistry between Marla and her blisteringly hot business partner and girlfriend Fran is believable.
Like Gone Girl, I Care a Lot is preoccupied with gender roles and sexual politics. The hyper-feminine carer/nurturer at the center of I Care a Lot begs the question: how can femininity effectively obscure violence, exploitation and ambition? Gender roles and stereotypes like docility, a caring nature, an instinct to nurture, which are forcibly put on women as a class, can actually be exploited for the power and profit of the individual woman. Male violence on full display in society creates a diversion that allows the female sociopath to lurk, stalk and loot in plain sight.
In I Care a Lot, Roman Lunyov’s weakness (loving his mom) would traditionally be coded as feminine. To protect her, he asserts a real burn-it-all-down type of masculine power: kidnapping, torture, (attempted) murder. Marla is his opposite. She loves nothing so much as power. She wants money even at the cost of love. Her counterattacks go through the courts, through the hospital system. She’s sly and flying under the radar as best as she can.
Marla’s insistence on moving forward with her plans for domination in the guardianship field, in spite of the promise of violence, is relatable to any woman who has resisted sexual grooming, intimidation, and even threats from chauvinists. That’s going to include a lot of straight women too, but lesbians, faced with ‘you just haven’t found the right man,’ or ‘you could really use a good d*ck to turn you straight,” are going to find some catharsis in Marla’s stubbornness and fearlessness.
Some kind of Third Wave Feminism
As a lesbian, the central character, is also a symbol of the rejection of, even a resistance to, male power. Lesbianism is a boundary. It’s a hard stop, a wall. It centers women in a world where maleness and masculinity are the standard, the norm, the axis of power around which everything else is believed to orbit. And Marla is her own axis of power, refusing to bend to gangsters, administrators, or the law. She’s a product of third-wave feminism — a woman amassing power by any means, just as men do.
Comparisons to Gone Girl in my own review and in countless others that you’ll encounter this week is not fair to Rosamund Pike, who has in fact made more than one movie. Her range is not limited to blonde-bobbed sociopaths who break the fourth wall to offer their own armchair feminist philosophy. But you’re going to keep seeing those comparisons because Gone Girl is essentially a perfect psychological thriller and a deep read on gender roles and sexual politics, a combo that I Care a Lot is also aiming for.
That instant and unavoidable comparison creates one of the film’s biggest stumbling blocks.
Remember how, shortly after the smash hit A Quiet Place had audiences (specifically me) screaming with its combination of alien invasion/creature feature/plague horror, Netflix took all these elements and made their own (seemingly knock-off) alien/creature/plague apocalypse horror? Where in A Quiet Place, the creatures were triggered by sound, and deafness proved to be an advantage that saved the day and pointed to a brighter tomorrow, in Bird Box it was sight, and blindness was the key to a brighter tomorrow.
It almost seemed like Netflix had written, produced and cast the film by algorithm, swapping out successful elements of a blockbuster to create a data-driven small screen success. In fact, Bird Box was adapted from a novel, but its similarities to A Quiet Place, along with the timing and hype around its release, led to audiences feeling let down.
Well, I Care A Lot feels real algorithm-y. It brings to mind Rosamund Pike’s iconic turn as Amy Dunne, sure, but also Maniac (which was produced by algorithm) and Ryan Murphy’s recent Netflix vehicles, with their escalating camp and color blocking.
Amy Dunne was not a likeable villain. She was nasty, unstoppably evil, and her femininity was a super power that allowed her to pull off airtight crimes, just like our Marla.
Although she was unlikeable, it’s exciting to root for her and Nick in the end. He’s trash, she’s trash, they’re perfect for each other. In a sick way, these characters lose and win in equal measure in the battle for their marriage. The thriller twists into a very gothic romance, and who doesn’t want soul mates to stay together?
That sentiment, of rooting for evil to meet its match, is what’s missing from I Care a Lot. The ending pulls the remaining loose ends in the story together to try and tie them up, but it doesn’t work, or at least for me it didn’t, because the justice served is cheap and shallow. Lunyov doesn’t get a comeuppance on par with Marla’s and Fran’s. And unlike Nick and Amy Dunne’s ending, you can’t turn this one over and over in your mind for hours or days after it’s over, considering all the demented and disturbing outcomes for these characters.
After much resistance, J Blakeson’s film had finally worn me down. If I wasn’t rooting for the evil assholes, at least I wanted to find out what happens to them next. But in the end, caring a little was not rewarded by I Care a Lot.