Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Netflix releases the film on its streaming platform on Friday, February 19.
Filmmaker J Blakeson makes one fatal flaw in his darkly funny thriller “I Care a Lot,” an understandable misstep because it seems like such a fundamental addition to any film: he tries to humanize his characters. While the film’s first half leans into the icy, often hilarious villainy of such very bad people as a ponytailed crime boss played by Peter Dinklage, a smarmy lawyer (Chris Messina) who dresses as if Colonel Sanders was a stand-up comedian, and star Rosamund Pike, returning to her frosty “Gone Girl” best, its messy final act attempts a brief foray into making some of these outsize monsters more civilized. What a mistake, because “I Care a Lot,” a pulpy social thriller that might be better suited for midnight movie positioning, is at its most purely enjoyable when it’s leaning right into just how very, very bad people can be.
“There’s no such thing as good people,” Marla Grayson (Pike) sneers during the film’s opening credits, as she introduces the closest thing she has to a personal ethos. Most of what we learn about Marla’s life before her turn into ice-queen insanity is delivered in those early moments, as she announces during voiceover that, in a world where you’re predator or prey, she’s “a fucking lioness.” Clearly the product of some self-reinvention — Marla makes mention once of being poor, and damn if she will ever feel impoverished again — Marla’s life is glossy, slick, and deeply unwell. That’s exactly how she likes it.
A professional, court-appointed legal guardian, Marla makes her bones “caring” for old folks who have nobody else to do it (or, in the case of Macon Blair’s desperate son, no one that Marla and her cronies think is suitable for the gig). Marla and her professional and personal partner Fran (Eiza González) have a pretty good racket going: their doctor pal Dr. Amos (Alicia Witt) clues them in on ailing elderly people who would benefit (sure) from being tossed into a retirement home, where Marla can control every aspect of their lives (read: mostly financial).
When Marla and Fran pick up new client Jennifer Peterson (the matchless Dianne Wiest), Blakeson shows us exactly what the pair are capable of, which is nothing short of horrifying. Once Dr. Amos lets the gals know that Jennifer is a “cherry” — well-heeled, totally alone, losing her mental faculties — they move quickly, getting a court order that changes Jennifer’s entire life without her knowledge, sticking her in a home, and setting about selling off all her belongings. With a slight twist in either direction, “I Care a Lot” could be a horror film or a wrenching drama, but Blakeson’s dark humor keeps it feeling, even in its worst moments, hugely entertaining.
Most of that is due to Pike, again capturing the cold, often very funny sociopathic tendencies of Amy Dunne in David Fincher’s vicious “Gone Girl” adaptation. No one is having as much fun as Pike here, gliding through self-made carnage in crisp monochromatic suits and spotless sneakers, utterly untouched by the pain she’s inflicting. While Pike has enjoyed a career that’s been quite varied and often sadly overlooked — both a “Bond girl” and an Oscar nominee, she’s done everything from biopics to streaming series, period pieces to flashy action films, and she’s consistently been the best thing in just about all of them — she remains known to most audiences for her awards-winning turn in “Gone Girl.” It’s easy to imagine an alternate cinematic world in which Amy went on to become Marla.
But even Marla isn’t infallible in her chilly machinations, and it turns out that Jennifer Peterson might not be totally alone. While “I Care a Lot” is compelling enough as a study of Marla and her strange world, Blakeson attempts to move it into pulpier, wackier territory. Who could possibly take down Marla? Perhaps someone like Dinklage, striking the same balance of evil and amusing, along with his creepy-fun lawyer (Messina) and a henchman (Nicholas Logan) who looks perpetually ready to jump out of his own skin.
Blakeson’s script piles on the complications fast and furious — an entire subplot about millions of dollars’ worth of diamonds is about seventh on the list of “big things that happen” in its second act — but at least they keep his growing cadre of characters on their toes. As Marla and Fran grapple with the realization that even they might be in over their heads this time, Blakeson similarly struggles with keeping all his crazy ideas in working order. Eventually, the film tips into something close to sentimentality, and Marla (“fucking lioness” Marla!) is forced to drop her shield and appeal to the kind of emotion she’s so far eschewed.
It’s not that we don’t want to see Marla succeed, but “I Care a Lot” is, by its own earliest admissions, a film about how no one is good, and trying to twist that nihilism into empathy dilutes its dark power. Hell, it even dilutes Marla, at least for a bit, until Blakeson and Pike kick the sentimentality and go whole-hog nutso. (A scene in which Marla, soaking wet after a seriously rough night, blithely strolls into a mini mart, grabs a carton of milk, and deposits a recently dislodged tooth into it for safekeeping seems destined to go down as a Pike all-timer.)
Twists abound, and while they don’t always pay off, at least “I Care a Lot” cares enough to deliver a full, bloody meal of a film for anyone intrigued by the allure of anti-heroes. Blakeson occasionally pushes things too far, and the film’s conclusion is a bizarre mishmash of obvious callbacks, enough exposition to power a whole other feature, and blunt social commentary. It’s a lot, surely, but no one does too much with just enough than Pike.
“I Care a Lot” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.