Rosamund Pike’s turn as icy sociopath Amy Dunne in “Gone Girl” was, as the kids say, a “cultural reset.” Her “I Care a Lot” character, Marla Grayson, enables Pike to revisit the mold she forged in 2014, as another blonde-bobbed antiheroine who plays out her deplorable schemes with impressively smooth cruelty.
Marla’s con is guardianship — she convinces a court to appoint her as an elderly person’s legal conservator on the pretense of fabricated symptoms. Once the documents are signed, she’s free to lock up her wards in an assisted living facility and bleed their assets dry. The operation is easier than you’d expect; just a couple of accomplices in the doctor’s office and the retirement home equip Marla with the tools to steer the legal system with remarkable ease. It’s only when Marla and her girlfriend Fran (Eiza González) go after apparently unattached cash cow Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) that the scheme hits a roadblock. Turns out Jennifer is secretly related to a Russian mob boss (Peter Dinklage), and he’s now out for Marla’s blood.
Writer and director J Blakeson’s gestures at satire are sharpest early on in the film, when we’re watching Marla in her element. In several gripping courtroom sequences, Marla silkily undermines anyone who speaks up on behalf of her abused charges, swaying a complacent judge to her side. Another cutting montage sees Jennifer pleading with her caretakers to listen to her while Marla methodically — and legally — empties her home of its valuables across town. It’s not hard to guess the film’s intended thesis: Corrupt systems beget more corruption. Or, as Marla argues in her introductory voiceover, “playing fair is a joke invented by rich people.”
In Marla’s worldview, she’s a “lioness” batting away chauvinistic bullies who stand in the way of her success, and Blakeson smartly showcases how Marla uses the rhetoric of female empowerment to reframe her amorality as a righteous crusade. When a man screams at her for not allowing her to see his mother, she quips that he’s just mad because he got beaten by “someone with a vagina”; during a sleekly shot tête-à-tête between Marla and smarmy lawyer Dean Ericson (Chris Messina), she archly corrects him when he accidentally refers to a female doctor using male pronouns. These moments are wonderfully cheeky jabs at today’s pernicious strain of white, corporate feminism — are we more inclined to excuse Marla’s corrosive greed and elder abuse if she dresses it up in monochrome outfits and calls it girlbossery?
Pike sells this unshakeable confidence with engrossing style, all chilly smiles and steely eyes. Blakeson’s script defines Marla by little more than her vulpine ambition, and in another performer’s hands, this flat unlikeability could sink a film. But Pike has a way of drawing the viewer in with her every gleeful maneuver. We might not root for her character, but Pike’s magnetism tempts us to stick around and see if Marla can actually pull things off.
As Marla faces off against increasingly insane obstacles, however, the stylish black comedy fragments. Much of the back half revolves around the cartoony revenge of Dinklage’s gangster — a character that’s glaringly farcical next to Pike’s lead — and this shift brings with it a bevy of action-movie feats. These are entertaining enough, but they mostly feel as though Blakeson is aggressively heightening Marla’s predicament without his earlier, more grounded focus. After these blunt antics, the ending’s rapid return to social commentary manifests as a callow speed-run.
This rushed conclusion is a strange bookend to a movie that otherwise makes the most of its nasty setup and propulsive twists. Blakeson’s direction is uneven, but some of his swipes at American capitalism do land with a pleasant sting. It’s Pike, though, who provides the film with its energy. There’s nothing quite like her venomous dramatization of evil — and thankfully, “I Care a Lot” knows it.