Writer-director J Blakeson first gained attention with 2009’s The Disappearance of Alice Creed, a tight crime thriller starring Gemma Arterton as a kidnapped heiress who plays her kidnappers against each other. I Care a Lot, Blakeson’s long-overdue follow up, is a similarly well-constructed thriller, with a great central female performance, this time from Rosamund Pike. Its appearance in the lineup at 2020’s TIFF and Netflix distribution hopefully suggests it will get more of the mainstream attention that Alice Creed should have.
Like Alice Creed, which carried flavors of early Neil Marshall as well as Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave, I Care a Lot also feels indebted to Blakeson’s fellow UK genre filmmakers. His new movie bears a strong resemblance to Matthew Vaughn’s 2004 gangster film Layer Cake, with Pike’s con artist Marla Grayson standing in for Daniel Craig’s suave, unnamed coke dealer. I Care a Lot is similarly stylish and darkly funny, with a welcome bitter edge that doesn’t overwhelm the final product, but gives it a refreshing bite.
Pike’s Marla is a court-appointed guardian, specializing in the care of elderly people. This should mean she takes legal control when a senior citizen who can no longer care for themselves is either neglected by their existing family, or has no family and needs emergency intervention. For Marla, the reality involves partnering with doctors and care homes to force older people into assisted living so she can sell off their assets, keeping the profits for herself. In the courtroom, Marla is all smiles and selflessness. Outside of it, she’s a shark.
When a doctor turns Marla and her business partner/girlfriend Fran (Eiza González) onto 60-something retiree Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), it looks like they’ve hit the jackpot. Jennifer’s gorgeous house is filled with valuable art and antiques, and her safety deposit box has some nice surprises of its own. However, Jennifer isn’t the childless old lady Marla thinks she is. After Marla sticks her in a facility, Jennifer’s crime boss son Roman (Peter Dinklage) comes looking for her. He instigates a game of one-upmanship with Marla that threatens her business, life and relationship with Fran.
The dramatic beats of I Care a Lot aren’t terribly surprising, but the writing is strong enough to keep things interesting. Blakeson peppers his script with lines and character specifics that elevate the material well above meat-and-potatoes level (for example, Roman threatens Marla by detailing how he cut off a previous rival’s fingers with a butter knife, and that “she’s buried under a Jimmy John’s now.”)
Pike’s confident performance brings to mind a more fiery version of her turn as Gone Girl’s Amy Dunne. Like Amy, Marla speaks in cynical inner monologues, and has a bifurcated persona that changes depending on what she needs (or wants) from whoever she’s speaking to at that moment. She’s exceedingly smart and competitive, and can be coolly detached or gleefully impassioned. Pike plays that range like a first-chair violinist, showing masterful control at every moment.
I Care a Lot may not be a tour-de-force, but there’s something to be said for sturdy filmmaking that knows what it is. Blakeson’s limited output so far has been consistently solid, and typically draws out strong performances from the actors involved. His latest is sharp and fun, and delivers exactly what you’d want it to, even if its overall arc sometimes feels predictable.
“I Care A Lot” streams Friday on Netflix.