Relatively early on in the comic thriller I Care a Lot, you might start to think that maybe a deleted scene or two from Gone Girl was somehow snuck in. Such a claim works because both movies star Rosamund Pike as a woman whose impeccable poise and radiant smile could fool you into overlooking some of her other attributes: ruthless persistence, killer negotiation skills and a quiet mastery of the long con. Even Pike’s cynical narration seems to channel her Gone Girl monologues, though the tough worldview she advances in this movie could’ve used a sharper rewrite: “There’s two types of people in the world, the people who take and those getting took.” Those are the words of Marla Grayson (Pike), a proud taker. She runs a lucrative scam as a court-appointed guardian for elderly wards of the state, and does such with a smooth bedside manner and a gift for coaxing others into submission, the audience included. Even when she directly scoffs in our direction, the insult isn’t meant to shame us so much as liberate us. Sit back, the movie insists, and enjoy the guilt-free spectacle of horrible people doing horrible things to arguably even more horrible people, then having still more horrible things done to them in return, and so on and so on until the hand of fate or God or the writer-director J Blakeson swoops in to settle scores.
And for a while at least, Blakeson does find some enjoyment, aided by a lead actor with an impressive knack for conspiratorial villainy. In this movie’s vision of present-day America as a late-capitalist ocean, Marla is an unusually sleek and lethal barracuda. With the help of Fran (Eiza González), her partner in crime and romance, plus some accomplices at hospitals and assisted-living facilities, Marla targets wealthy older individuals who are too sick and helpless — or who, with a little creative paperwork, can be made to look too sick and helpless — to handle their personal affairs. She effectively takes them captive, sucking them dry of their assets and turning a tidy profit for all involved. Clearly, all of which sets up Marla to being a pretty bad person and not someone to root for, which is far from a bad thing, if only I Care a Lot didn’t slowly want you to do so.
Being lured into a sense of complicity with unapologetically evil people is one of the reliable pleasures of cinema, but wanting the robbers to pull off a heist feels a little different than… elder abuse. The intentionality of this feels unlikely, but the movie still preemptively stacks the deck in Marla’s favor. When a plaintiff, Feldstrom (Macon Blair), rails against Marla for denying him access to his mother, her well-practiced, level-headed response — that she takes better care of them than their own children do, because she actually gets paid to do it — is meant to elicit your outrage, yes, but also your laughter and, eventually, your grudging admiration. It helps that Feldstrom is presented as a ranting, emasculated loser with a violent streak, all the better for Marla to position herself, not too persuasively, as some kind of feminist avenger — and also to keep you from thinking too hard about the human consequences of her ploy.
Or, then again, it might all just be their for the rug to pulled out from under us. That fraught initial confrontation sets a pattern for the rest of the movie. Blakeson likes to underline Marla’s audacity, putting her into deadly situations that are invariably of her own making. Her next unsuspecting target is a woman named Jennifer (Dianne Wiest), who is identified, in grifter lingo, as a “cherry” — an ideal mark, with a beautiful house, serious savings and no apparent family. But not long after this perfectly healthy, capable woman is declared incompetent and locked up in a nursing home, it becomes alarmingly clear that she’s not the docile, clean-cut target she appeared to be. It’s from there where some nasty surprises ensue with plenty of colorful supporting players, among them a sleazy lawyer (a great, underused Chris Messina), and, in time, a powerful gangster, Roman (an amusing Peter Dinklage), who has a foul temper that he always seems to rein in at the last minute. No unlike Marla, Roman doesn’t really want to see the world burn or make anyone suffer beyond the requisite collateral damage. He just wants to run his racket and earn his millions, and he doesn’t understand why everyone around him insists on making that so difficult.
He and Marla make nifty odd-couple adversaries, signaled by their physical differences and contrasting habits. (She vapes; he likes pastries.) But the amiable ensemble aside, I Care a Lot is pretty much a one-woman show for Pike, who works in a constricted emotional range but a boundless physical one. So, essentially, a variation of the shades she played on in Gone Girl. Behind the camera, Blakeson savors the mechanics of entrapment and escape; he delights in putting his characters through the wringer and watching them wiggle their way out. He fashions I Care a Lot into a swift exercise in suspense, propelled by busy, outlandish twists from which you can glean the occasional flash of satire or emotion. Those flashes are welcome, if still not quite enough. Crooked conservatorships are definitely in the zeitgeist at the moment, and whether or not those headlines make I Care a Lot seem like an unusually topical entertainment or expose it as a thin hustle is open to debate. The movie itself seems confused where it stands: It belatedly tries to grow a heart in its closing scenes, tossing off its snarky, self-satisfied cynicism and making a half-hearted crawl toward catharsis. It wants you to care, more than it actually cares to even admit. I Care a Lot has plenty of sleek pulp and dashes of satire, yet over time the lark gets caught going in circles; stretched thin to the point of care being lost.
I Care a Lot is available to stream on Netflix