“To make it in this country, you have to be brave and stupid and ruthless. Playing fair and being scared get you beat. And I want to be rich. I want to use money like a bludgeon, the way rich people do.” – Rosamund Pike as Marla Grayson in I Care a Lot.
Crime films are among the most thrilling and dramatic. However, between drug traffickers inciting high stakes shootouts and mobsters planting horse heads in beds, the victims and perpetrators seen in the genre are usually rather niche, and their practices fall beyond clearly defined bounds of legality. So, which grand criminal operation should we, realistically, fear most? Government-permitted crimes committed through loopholes and via carefully placed clauses in contracts is a fair place to start. And J Blakeson’s I Care a Lot is an investigation into why.
The film explores the world of court-appointed legal guardianship. When older individuals are incapable of caring for themselves and have no one in their personal lives to fulfill the job, guardianship is enacted. Although selfless is in its purpose, this guardianship permits those appointed to control the lives and livelihoods of their wards to their own liking, booting the floodgates of legal exploitation wide open. This is the world of Marla (Rosamund Pike) and her partner, Fran (Eiza González). However, in their attempt to swindle and exploit their latest mark, Jennifer (Dianne Wiest), they discover the target they’ve got firm in their grasp is equally clutched by the hands of the Russian mob, led by Jennifer’s son, Romanov (Peter Dinklage).
Marla is cold and calculated in her financial ambition, finding no issue with her manipulation and abuse of the elderly, and Pike’s performance is irresistibly evil. She has a charm that flips on like a switch, and when the clock of charisma times out, her deadened eyes and dissonant smile take over. As a legal guardian, it is Marla’s job to care for her wards. As she says, “All day, I care,” and the film implements a cynical twist on this word. Surely her career description describes her day-to-day duties as “caring,” but there’s absolutely no altruistic intent involved. Caring is the job and not the emotional output, and this redefinition allows Marla to tell bald-faced lies under the assumption of selflessness.
Marla’s partnership with Dr. Amos (Alicia Witt), who proposes Jennifer as a ripe “cherry” to be picked, brings the word “care” to even more drastic connotations. Dr. Amos tells Marla everything there is to know about Jennifer’s family history and financial standing, only refusing to disclose her test results, as “that would be unethical.” Yet in horrifying irony, she then proceeds to dramatize Jennifer’s memory loss in order to position her to the courts as someone in need of legal guardianship. Positing a significant distrust in the medical professionals whom we believe to more deeply understand and advocate for our best interests, such exchanges are an incriminating reminder that a physician’s industry is led by funds, and patients are flung to the needs of the cash cow. And when a mark dies, Marla sees it as an asset prematurely wasted, not a life lost.
The permittance of Marla’s crimes — which includes auctioning off property, selling homes, managing bank accounts, and using the income from it all to line her pockets — is furthered by her indirect employer: the courts. She has a friendship with the judge, so when concerns are brought to the table, she’s able to talk herself right out of it. Jennifer’s lawyer, Dean Ericson (Chris Messina), appointed by Romanov, sees through it all, recognizing Marla’s scams for what they really are. Yet instead of even remotely threatening to dismantle her operation, he applauds it, stating, “If your whole enterprise isn’t the perfect example of the American dream, I don’t know what is.” I Care a Lot brings recognition to the bootstraps mentality of American economic politics: scratch and claw your way to the top with regard only for yourself. Success is all in the hustle.
When Marla refuses to give up Jennifer in exchange for a bribe she finds to be too nominal, Romanov unleashes his soldiers, brandishing guns and unafraid of violence as a primary tactic. Marla’s corporate crime is pitted directly against the mob, and I Care a Lot opts for them to duke it out to see who the real monsters are. Yet in a clever subversion of expectations, the audience is forced to realize that, in this scenario, it’s the mobsters who are playing on the side of morality against a malicious unassuming blonde woman in a sunny yellow suit.
Directly placed in the mob’s sights, Marla is more upset by feeling cheated than she is by the fact that her mortality is in limbo. She wants Romanov to defeat her legally, going through the courts and playing by the books. Both horrifying and hilarious in its irony, there is no way for the game to be played fairly, as the victims never win. It’s a pissing contest of society versus syndicate — merely a measure of power. The mob is only fighting for Jennifer, and if they get her back, they’ll leave Marla and her dozens of other victimized wards alone.
The film even explores care corporations, under which there are branches for nursing homes, legal teams, real estate businesses, medical and pharmaceutical industry, and gangs of guardians to be appointed. Each of these arms then funnels money to the larger body, as the single institution — within an industry of many — rakes in billions on the business of exploitation under a mostly legal allowance.
Being victimized by crime syndicates is a reality that the commonplace person has a diminutive chance of encountering. What’s substantially more likely is that we’ll fall victim to exploitation and manipulation by our government’s actions. And in one way or another, we probably already have. Yet, the terror comes in the fact that the criminality and immorality of our institution’s larger practices are so deeply inset in our culture and history that we might not even know, or feel, that we’ve been wronged.
I Care a Lot is unafraid to posit this to audiences in a campy crime-thriller that quickly turns dark. Marla, and others like her, kidnap individuals and their assets under the permission of the courts, using mandated exploitation for the benefit of indispensable systems by power-hungry people. It’s simply the way in which American industry is built: prioritizing profit over people and deciding whether you want to be a predator or prey. Employing the elderly as a vehicle for its message, and using the Russian mob as a poignant foil that begs the question of whose crimes are more crooked, I Care a Lot is an exposé of how the government exploits the vulnerable, whether it’s the physically meek or the financially oppressed.