“I Care a Lot” would have been a good movie if it actually told the story that it wanted to tell. The premise is interesting enough: Marla Greyson (Rosamund Pike) tricks the court into making herself the guardian of the rich elderly, sapping each of the elder’s assets and bank accounts in the process. Marla’s con is a deliciously deceptive one, but things spiral out of control when she picks out the wrong rich lady to fool—Jennifer Peterson (Dianne West), the matriarch of the Russian mafia. Now, past this point there are spoilers: proceed if you wish.
But for all the interesting plot points mentioned above, this movie falls flat in its attempt at some kind of gender-politics message. The movie establishes itself from the first minute that it’s going to be concerned with some form of feminism with Marla monologuing about how she’s a “lioness”—and while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, the fact that Marla is, essentially, a despicable person will leave a bad taste in many people’s mouths.
For the most part, Marla is an interesting character. She’s the personification of the “gaslight, gatekeeper, girlboss” meme: absolutely manipulative, brutal and wrapped up in finely tailored suits and dresses. She can go from the stone-cold businesswoman who doesn’t so much as flinch when first being threatened by the mafia to the seemingly compassionate caretaker when appearing before a judge. In essence, Marla wields her power with confidence. She’s sure of who she is and she knows just how much she’s capable of. The only time the audience sees her at her most human is when she’s with her girlfriend and partner-in-crime Fran (Eiza Gonzȧlez), which, to some extent, is relatable—committing crime is always more exciting when one has a life partner to do them with.
While all those mentioned above are good things, the complication lies in how the movie attempts to deliver some brand of feminism. Not coincidentally, the main antagonists are men. In the first 10 minutes of the film, Marla’s verbally assaulted by Feldstrom (Macon Blair), the son of a mother who Marla’s taken guardianship of. He yells that he hopes Marla gets raped and murdered, and Marla’s response is simultaneously satisfying and yet not. Her response effectively boils down to “What, are you mad that you got beaten by a woman?” and “If you touch me again, I will yank your balls off.” The satisfying part: Yes, of course there are plenty of women who have effectively wanted to say the same thing for someone who’s been attacked by a man. The less satisfying part: Marla severely manipulated the court into getting rich, so how is the audience supposed to clap for Marla when knowing that she just committed fraud?
The audience is forced to deal with this question when being introduced to the main antagonist, Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage). Upon realizing that his mother was forced into a nursing home against her will, Roman does everything in his power to get her back. This includes sending his lawyer Deric Ericson (Chris Messina) to threaten Marla and then sending mafia members to hurt Fran.
Since Marla’s the protagonist, the audience is expected to at least somewhat root for her—even though Marla’s a despicable person. I’m not saying that despicable people can’t be protagonists, but the issue with this movie and its attempt at a feminist message is that oddly, the antagonist is more sympathetic than the protagonist. Yes, Lunyov is the head of the mafia, but he’s an emotional character—one who looks at photos of his mother and himself from his childhood and becomes incredibly emotional when realizing that his henchmen couldn’t find his mother. These moments painfully tug at the heartstrings.
But Marla? Marla’s main motivation is that she just wants money. She makes that much clear from the get-go: she wants to be filthy rich, rich enough to own a piece of the world. Now, Marla’s still a little more sympathetic and human when she’s with Fran—but even then, it becomes more difficult to root for Marla because at least Fran wants to get away from the mafia. Marla, on the other hand, wants to stay and see things to the end. While that’s in character for Marla, this need for wealth and power ultimately stabs her in the back—or, perhaps more accurately, shoots her in the chest.
That’s right: Marla eventually climbs to the top and gets the wealth that she’s always dreamed about, but right as the movie’s about to end, Feldstrom, on account of his own hopes, returns and shoots Marla in the chest. If the audience is familiar enough with basic story structure, such an ending shouldn’t be surprising—if the protagonist is a wicked person, that protagonist eventually has to get punished in some way or another.
However, while Marla’s punishment is ironically fitting, there’s something unsettling about how this movie effectively punishes women who are ambitious and cunning. Yes, Marla is absolutely despicable, and she should have been punished, and yes, there should be more female characters as despicable, villainous entities—but why is it that whenever there’s a female character who’s a villain, she must ALSO be a woman confident in her own abilities? Why must she ALSO be someone who’s attracted to other women? And, on top of that, why must she ALSO be someone who’s angry at men who threaten to murder and rape her?
Given the already rampant history of queer-coded or literally queer villains, as well as villains who also happen to be #EmpoweredWomen, Marla’s treatment leaves a dirty taste in the mouth. Once more, this isn’t to say that there shouldn’t be female villains who also happen to know their worth—that’s all fine and good, but the fact that confident women are commonly portrayed as the villain is what makes movies like “I Care a Lot” a thumbs-down from this reviewer.