Frankly, the playbook for success in America sucks. You’ve heard it before: eat or be eaten, hustle hustle hustle, move like a shark, the competition is working while you’re sleeping. This is, to use the term loosely, sociopathic — which is why it’s such fertile territory for cinematic villains like American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. In the new Netflix thriller I Care A Lot, writer-director J Blakeson introduces us to another: Marla Grayson.
Marla (Rosamund Pike) is a fully-formed monster of a well-mannered and respectable sort. She’s a con artist who specializes in separating the elderly from their wealth. She also has an efficient system: a doctor who will declare targets unfit to manage their own affairs, a practiced courtroom spiel that tells judges what they need to hear so they’ll appoint her as her latest target’s legal guardian, and a favorite retirement home that appreciates all the business she sends their way.
It’s a horrifyingly effective grift that foregrounds the terrible truth of elder abuse, which most Americans are vaguely aware of, but never confront until they have to deal with it themselves. Business is good for Marla, because like any good grifter, she isn’t making any waves of her own, she’s just inserting herself into a systemic injustice the wider culture has decided it’s fine with.
But one day she picks the wrong target. Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) should be an easy mark: She has a lot of possessions, and no close family. Unfortunately for Marla, Jennifer’s son is crime boss Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage, looking a whole lot like Jack Dorsey). Like any good crime lord, Roman loves his mom, and will stop at nothing to extricate her from Marla’s tangled web.
With its central conflict established, I Care A Lot prowls through its two-hour runtime. Mirroring its protagonist’s steady pulse and slick-yet-not-overstated style (consider her trenchcoat: a classic tan affair that hugs her upper torso perfectly, yet falls in loose, flowing folds), it confidently lays out the cat-and-mouse game between its two main characters, their moves and countermoves against each other. It never fully pounces, though — while the conflict between Marla and Roman does come to a head, the stakes remain relatively flat.
This is partly because I Care A Lot ironically doesn’t have much to care about. As Marla, Rosamund Pike is tremendous fun, playing the sort of openly conniving woman that her character in Gone Girl subversively hinted at. And while Dinklage’s Roman Lunyov is a compelling foe, he mostly acts by proxy, preferring to remain out of sight. So while they’re both bad people, only Marla has any sense of interiority. Pike works wonders to make a thin story feel full and satisfying to watch in the moment, but once it’s over, the thinness starts to become bothersome, especially given the arresting subject matter at its core.
There’s a meanness to I Care A Lot’s premise that is arresting and never far from the audience’s mind — in Marla’s spacious office, for example, she sits at a desk across from a wall where she hangs photos of her victims — or as the law now considers them, her wards. For brief moments, usually when Wiest’s character, Jennifer, is on screen, the film seems like it’s going to confront them head-on. But it always stops short. In these moments, however, I Care A Lot, is at its most compelling — when Jennifer looks directly at Marla and recognizes precisely the sort of creature she is.
Not a “fucking lioness,” as Marla calls herself in I Care A Lot’s opening monologue, spinning herself as a woman wise to the fact that people are either predator or prey, and that you can choose to be the former, or consign yourself to the latter. That’s just the great myth of American capitalism, a wonderfully adaptable fable that can gussied up with #girlboss buzzwords to create monsters like Marla in the first place. No, she’s something closer to the truth of how you make it in America, as Jennifer realizes midway through the film, from the nursing home Marla has trapped her in. She’s a goddamned vulture.
I Care a Lot is now available to stream on Netflix.