Monday 22 February 2021

Swimming with sharks: "I Care A Lot"

Those in search of fuzzily reassuring feelgood fare would do well to give the films of J. Blakeson an extra wide berth. That much first became apparent in the course of 2009's The Disappearance of Alice Creed, this filmmaker's slyly seesawing directorial debut, where none of the three central characters were quite as they first seemed - or, rather, all three had extra depths of low cunning to which they merrily descended. Somehow, Blakeson - so compulsively withholding he's thus far succeeded in keeping his given name from public view (might it be Jaundice?) - has since secured a visa to work in sunny, optimistic America, and after the unhappy YA of 2016's The 5th Wave, he returns to appreciably nasty form with this week's self-penned I Care A Lot, a black-comic thriller set within the US healthcare system. Its outwardly upright centrepoint is Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), who's seized upon a loophole by getting herself appointed legal guardian to those moneyed husks languishing in care-home facilities, and thereafter milking them for as long as they remain on this mortal coil. Judging from her aspirational wardrobe and girlfriend (Eiza González), and the ruthless cut of her perfectly symmetrical bob - truly, if locks could kill - she's doing more than all right from it, too. Yet like most of those hustling within unregulated free market economies, this high-flying alpha is still swimming with sharks. She bites off what looks to be far more than even she can chew in the case of Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), who - unlike Marla's other cash cows - remains just compos mentis enough to realise something's awry, and furthermore has a son (Peter Dinklage) with ties to the Russian mob. It's becoming Blakeson's preferred tactic: centre a movie on an unscrupulous character, introduce folks with fewer scruples yet, sit back cackling and rubbing hands with glee, hope audience does likewise. I did, for the most part.

For much of its running time, I Care A Lot is the Pike show, and further proof that this actress has grown into one of our most commanding and unflappable performers. My suspicion is that Blakeson may well be one of those weirdoes who overvalues 2014's Gone Girl, from the back end of David Fincher's openly contemptuous give-'em-what-they-want phase; traces of that succès de scandale persist here in the gleeful plot switchbacks and incorrigible sex-war stoking. Marla Grayson seems like an evolution on Amy Dunne, however, not least in her corporate slickness, her ability to play nice so long as it gets her what she wants: she's by far the more polished sociopath. Marla does get what she wants for 45 minutes, and then the movie starts tossing ball bearings under her Blahniks. If she becomes any less reprehensible in the course of what follows, it's down to the way this giraffe-on-rollerskates retains her poise; even after our anti-heroine is dumped in a lake and left for dead, she ain't going down easy. "I don't like you," spits Dinklage, when the two finally come face-to-face in the second half. Marla's response? "You've only just met me." As with the mobster, so with the viewer. What's kept Blakeson's self-penned work from glibness is this skill with actors: his characters may be dreadful shits, but they're fun to watch as they skid around and sometimes down the pan. A few manage that in mere scenes. As a peacocking lawyer doing the right thing in the worst way, Chris Messina coasts into Marla's office on a cloud of cologne and supercilious charm that doesn't entirely mask the underlying violence of his message; Wiest, purged of her usual sweetness, makes Jennifer a slightly conniving victim, someone who realises one way to wriggle out of this snafu might be to act up. Dinklage, by contrast, keeps his mobster on a skilful low simmer - an angrily discarded smoothie is his most prominent victim for the first hour - although his casting may have symbolic value. This, after all, is a film that might not exist without the dubious moral relativism of Game of Thrones, with its insistence the world is a bearpit, but we'll be dead soon enough. Why not take a few hours' enjoyment from the sight of others being dragged down and ripped to shreds? If you're in the mood for that, Blakeson would absolutely be your go-to guy.

I Care A Lot is now streaming in the UK via Prime Video, and globally via Netflix.

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