I Care A Lot is the type of film that knows exactly what it is and what it means to be from the very first frame. Healthcare workers divvy up monotonous rows of medications into small plastic cups intended to keep their targets as much in check as they do healthy. The first piece of dialogue is a woman's voice seemingly calling the viewer out, "Look at you. Sitting there," she says as she goes on to explain how the idea of "playing fair" is a joke invented by the rich to keep everyone else poor. All of this accompanied by the immediate needle drop of Death in Vegas' 1999 track "Dirge" or what is another word for a "sad song", an elegy. Writer/director J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed) pushes all the way down on the syringe releasing every facet of his technique into the bloodstream as quickly as he can. From that first moment the tone is fully engaged and every tool Blakeson has at his disposal is being used to elevate the story being told; the film is firing on all cylinders. The difference between I Care A Lot and most films that begin with such promise though, is that it sustains its nasty yet overwhelmingly engaging tone throughout its nearly two-hour runtime. By the end of that runtime one is bound to be both satisfied as far as viewing experiences go, but also somewhat overwhelmed not simply by the lengths the narrative decides to venture, but the implications of our lead character's, the anti-hero in many respects, course of action. It is this course of action, this central scheme that Rosamund Pike’s Marla Grayson has cooked up, that provides much of the propulsion and confidence the film displays throughout as one would require such attributes to pull the type of legal Olympics off that she does here. While the tone is enjoyable - delectable even - and we, the audience are having a blast watching these people do these terrible things there is no escaping the fact that afterward, once the credits have rolled, we're also somewhat appalled at the fact we did enjoy this level of duplicity so much. 

How real and damaging the effects of what the character of Marla Grayson is doing here are the reasons Blakeson has chosen to employ that all-knowing and judgmental narration, why he uses bold, primary colors in both setting and wardrobe to heighten the world in which his film takes place, and why he utilizes Marc Canham's electronic-heavy score to give Grayson's actions an edge that, while understanding she's an inherently evil person, still makes her seem cool. It's the age old question of why we root for the bad guy, the villain, and often times it's because we can recognize their flaws in our own, but even Marla Grayson would tell you her only flaw is being too ambitious and too driven and that she finds no fault in doing whatever it takes to get to the top. It's not that these qualities aren't relatable or are the reasons we aren't sympathetic to Grayson come the end of the film, but it's how far she's willing to cross the line in order to make her ambitions a reality that separates the human being from the truly despicable.   

Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) drops in on an unsuspecting Ms. Peterson (Dianne Weist) in J Blakeson's I Care A Lot.
© Netflix - 2021

"Look at all these cash cows on your wall just leaking money into your account one overpriced hour at a time. Good for you. I'm not here to ruin your business. I'm happy for you to keep milking these poor, vulnerable people for as long as you damn well please. Hell, if your whole enterprise isn't the perfect example of the American dream, I don't know what is." This description of Grayson's scheme cuts to the heart of what is being inflicted upon senior citizens who are deemed no longer fit to take care of themselves by the courts and then have their custody awarded to Grayson who drains their savings. She sells their houses and auctions off their possessions to put as much money back into her pockets as she can. She keeps them alive as long as possible in nursing homes run by smug creatures like Sam (Damian Young) allowing her to liquidate their assets for as long as possible so that by the time they die whatever was put in their will to be passed on to their inheritors is essentially gone. It's such a sterling little summary that Grayson herself would seemingly be impressed were it not directed at her. The words come from a lawyer played by the ever-charming Chris Messina at the behest of Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage) whose mother has recently become the latest victim of Marla's scheme, but who is not like most clients given Lunyov doesn't much care what a judge or a court has to say or how it applies to his affairs. Lunyov's mother, known as Jennifer Peterson and played by the truly delightful Dianne Wiest (seriously, she's great here), carries an extra amount of baggage that in some ways complicates Grayson's life, but in more ways than one seems to give Grayson the kind of adrenaline rush she requires to keep her motivation and determination at a ten. The routine of securing potential clients from a doctor friend and then stringing these cases through a reliable court as overseen by a familiar judge (a completely in-tune Isiah Whitlock Jr.) in order to obtain guardianship after which Grayson along with her business and life partner, Fran (Eiza Gonz├ílez), begin the transfer process of their client to a home and then attain all of their equity and estate is simply to feed the rush and by the time Peterson comes along it is very much a routine that Grayson is prepared to move past.   

It would seem that, given the film's focus on a legal system that allows a court-appointed legal guardian to defraud her elderly, unsuspecting clients while maintaining the guise she is only present in the best interest of said client, that the outrageousness of the system in question would be Blakeson's primary target, but as I Care A Lot plays out and the full picture comes into view it's clear that's not entirely his objective. At one point in the film, Grayson responds to the assertion that she is brave, but stupid by saying, "To make it in this country you need to be brave...and stupid and ruthless and focused. This playing fair, being scared, that gets you nowhere, that gets you beat." This response would have you believe Grayson is willing to do whatever it takes, risk whatever she had to risk - and keep in mind this is a woman who responds to threats against her mother's life by saying that she doesn't care and calling her a sociopath - in order to become wealthy and lead the life she desires. Needless to say, nothing else will be good enough for her and whatever it was in her past that nurtured this drive must have been enough to make Grayson feel that even her own life wasn't worth living if it wasn't how she imagined because she's certainly willing to put that on the line as well. This personal code of conduct by which Grayson lives her life is maybe the most fascinating aspect of the film and is what Blakeson uses to convey his main ideas through which sway more toward the rich and the way their money personifies influence rather than simply taking aim at loopholes in a system that those who go looking for them are bound to find. Rich people use money as a bludgeon and Blakeson, notably a Brit, repeats the phrase "America dream" in his screenplay enough that it would seem I Care A Lot is largely an examination of why this type of power and influence has come to symbolize the "dream" of an entire nation. 

Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage) has a special connection to Marla Grayson's latest client who doesn't intend to let her get away with her usual scheme.
© Netflix - 2021 

More interesting even is that later in the film during a conversation between Grayson and Peterson, Grayson rebukes what she considers empty threats from Peterson by reassuring her of her stance that goes, "I don't lose. I won't lose. I'm never letting you go. I own you and I will drain you of your money, your comfort, and your self-respect. Not because I want to, not because I'll enjoy it or because I plan for it, but because your people didn't play by the rules." Is playing fair different than playing by the rules then? Technically, Grayson is a woman who plays by the rules, but that doesn't restrict her from bending them to fit her needs. It may not be fair, but neither is life, and at least what she's doing is legal. The difference between Grayson and someone like Lunyov is that she, while doing ethically dubious things, is still on the right side of the law whereas Lunyov - who is in the business of highly illegal actions and has had Lord knows how many people killed - is obviously doing such ethically dubious things on the other side of the law. Yes, it's somewhat ironic that Grayson expects people to play by the rules in response to a scam that takes advantage of a life someone built for themselves only for Grayson to swiftly (and legally) take that away to improve her own, but it is this perverse contradiction of sorts that Blakeson finds both fascinating and something worth exposing. The anecdote about how a bounty for killing cobras in British India then created an incentive for people to breed cobras comes to mind as the chasing of that "American dream" has ultimately led to the breeding of generations upon generations who seek to achieve what they've been conditioned to believe is the apex of an existence by any means necessary.           

Beyond the heavy themes and weighty commentary though, I Care A Lot is a hell of a piece of entertainment that carries the irony of its title through to every moment of its amoral fiber. One could list several dialogue exchanges to exemplify the facetiousness with which Blakeson approaches these very serious issues he's discussing though I'd call specific attention to the scene in which Grayson and Lunyov come face to face for the first time. Furthermore, the performance of Pike must be singled out as Grayson, while an anti-hero, is still the character than anchors everything here. Pike has to strike just the right balance of having all these admirable qualities of being intelligent, ambitious, focused, and charismatic while at the same time using those qualities in all the wrong ways and making the character both engaging and contemptible. Never vulnerable and always threatening Pike is more than capable of this type of performance given her most notable turn as Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, but Marla Grayson's actions would almost rank as more reprehensible given the consistency of them and how she treats humans as commodities and qualifies how much she cares in a quantitative fashion over a qualitative one. "You're a rare person, Marla." Dinklage's Lunyov tells her and in the final ten or so minutes of the film, Blakeson ties up his narrative by stressing just how exceptional she is while simultaneously emphasizing the film's most glaring limitation as it rushes to the final stop on the runaway train that is Grayson's success. Not so much a satire as it is a scathing indictment of how twisted the American dream has become, I Care A Lot achieves something most films only aspire by feeling fresh and enlightening despite nearly every character being rotten to their core.

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