I Care a Lot is an enthralling comedy-tinged thriller that skillfully maintains our interest in the lives of horrible people. The lead character is alpha-female Marla Grayson, played by Rosamund Pike. At the start of the film, Marla declares in voiceover that there are two kinds of people: lions and lambs. She sees herself as a lioness, but a wolf in sheep’s clothing is a more apt metaphor. Marla runs a lucrative business exploiting vulnerable seniors, draining them of their assets under the auspices of legal guardianship. She expertly manipulates judges into assigning her wards-of-the-state, convincing them that family members can’t be trusted because relatives are more interested in preserving their inheritance than spending money on necessary care. She says she has no such conflict of interest. She says she cares.
Marla’s latest prey is Jennifer, played by Dianne Weist. Jennifer appears to be the perfect mark – rich, single, with apparently no surviving relatives. Her doctor, a crooked co-conspirator of Marla’s, is more than happy to embellish the severity of Jennifer’s age-related issues and recommend to the courts that she be placed under Marla’s stewardship. With a process honed to perfection through countless repetitions, Marla whisks Jennifer away to a nursing home and liquidates her assets so fast, our heads are left spinning almost as much as Jennifer’s.
Unbeknownst to Marla, Jennifer is living under an assumed identity. Even worse, she has a dangerous son – a crime boss named Roman, played by Peter Dinklage – who’s willing to stop at nothing to free his mom from Marla’s clutches. But Marla’s fearless cunning and determination to win at all costs make her a surprisingly formidable adversary.
One of the neat tricks pulled off by I Care a Lot is how it forces us to root for the lesser of two evils. In this case, it’s Roman. Roman is a killer, but he’s the type of character that those of us living on the straight and narrow can easily avoid. And he loves his mother and wants her back, something we can relate to. It’s a credit to the storytelling and Rosamund Pike’s cutthroat performance that we want to see Marla stopped no matter what. Tension mounts as it becomes increasingly apparent that that’s not likely to happen, leveraging the terror we would feel if we, or someone we love, lost our freedom to a monster like her.
As thoroughly engrossing as I Care a Lot is, some of the plot machinations strain credulity, especially when they lean into action film tropes, as when two essential characters are gifted with overly elaborate murder attempts allowing time for escape, while a disposable character is dispatched with a simple pull of a trigger. But with its excellent performances and twisty-turny story that never loses momentum, that hardly matters.
I Care a Lot also deserves high marks for sidestepping identity-driven clichés. Dinklage, born with a common form of dwarfism, is never exploited for his stature or made the target of lame dwarf jokes. Nor is the same-sex relationship Marla has with her assistant ever milked for gratuitous nudity or lesbian love scenes. It’s actually thematically resonant that Marla and Roman are who they are; within the world of I Care a Lot, a woman and a diminutive man represent the most fearsome predators, putting a deliberate emphasis on how it’s not sinew and brawn that determines one’s position on the contemporary food chain, but wealth and ruthlessness.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski.