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Does a movie need to have likable characters? It’s a fair question. One would certainly have a hard time arguing that they aren’t an asset, as they have the power to keep an audience invested even when they aren’t engaging with a story. It’s also certainly a way that we judge something as “bad,” as there’s plenty of awful cinema where off-putting protagonists are clearly front-and-center problems. But is it impossible to make a quality film solely filled with hateful monsters?

The answer is no, and the proof is J Blakeson’s I Care A Lot. This is a movie exclusively about individuals with black, rotting souls destined for 100 miles beneath the lowest circle of hell, with nary an ounce of redemptive quality in sight – and the level of malevolence is beyond fascinating. The driving philosophy in this epically cynical feature is that the most powerful weapon against a great evil is a greater evil, and the cat-and-mouse game that spins out is deliciously vicious and sharp.

Even with the expectations of a twist that comes with the con artist subgenre, it never ceases to surprise, and it matches its wicked story with a devilish turn from Rosamund Pike (the best she’s been since David Fincher’s Gone Girl) and a sunshine aesthetic that brilliantly (in all senses of the word) heightens everything.

I Care A Lot’s star evil-doer is Marla Grayson (Pike), an immoral, sociopathic capitalist who has successfully manipulated the system to run a horrific scam. She claims to be a legal guardian, but what she really does is find helpless elderly people and convince a judge (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) that they cannot be trusted to take care of themselves. Then she sticks them in a nursing home with an owner (Damian Young) on the take while she bleeds them dry by selling all of their possessions and assets. Publicly operating fully within the law, she has an entire company dedicated to the effort, co-run with her partner Fran (Eiza González).

When one of Marla and Fran’s marks unexpectedly dies, the duo find themselves fishing for someone to fill the vacated nursing home suite, and with some help from a corrupt doctor friend (Alicia Witt) they find what they believe to be the perfect target. Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) is a retired executive who lives alone and has no family, and after performing the standard background check Marla strikes at what she perceives as a goldmine. An emergency hearing is called – without Jennifer present – and within just a few minutes the perfectly able retiree is declared legally under the protagonist’s “care.”

The newest victim of the con job gets locked up, the key ostensibly thrown away, and the liquidation of everything she owns begins. But Marla soon begins to suspect that there is something… off. A raid of Jennifer’s safe deposit box reveals a satchel of flawless diamonds with no record, and one day during the renovation of Jennifer’s house a man in a taxi comes to pick Jennifer up. Before too long, Marla and Fran realize that their latest mark is not precisely who they thought she was, and that their greed has put them in the crosshairs of a man (Peter Dinklage) who could threaten not only their livelihood, but their lives.

I Care A Lot makes your skin crawl in the best way.

Cinephiles are obviously not strangers to films with less-than-moral leads, but the typical move is to give them a conscience that pulls at them and/or balance them out with more standard forces for good (i.e. in gangster movies when the murderous protagonist wants out of the crime world as the ace detective is circling closer and closer). What makes I Care A Lot so brazen is that it doesn’t bother with that kind of audience coddling. Marla doesn’t have any kind of tragic backstory that explains her disturbingly callous behavior beyond the fact that she grew up without money and has no interest in returning to that lifestyle. She does what she does because of greed and because the law lets her.

With no authority to stand in her way, what’s left for audiences is hope that the “universe” sorts out “justice” – and that comes… albeit in the darkest shade of dark. Revealing too much here would be a cinematic sin, but let’s just say that Jennifer Peterson’s associates are not exactly The Avengers. A fascinating dichotomy is established, because you’re not so much hoping for one side to claim victory so much as you are desperately praying that they somehow wind up eating each other. It’s a nasty feeling for a movie to evoke, but damn if it’s not exceptionally effective, making for savage entertainment.

Everybody in the cast – but especially Rosamund Pike and Chris Messina – is having a blast.

Watching I Care A Lot, one can’t help but think of the old cliché about actors having more fun playing the villain, because everybody here is a villain, and everybody is clearly having a great time. Peter Dinklage has a low-key fury going as a permanent undercurrent in his performance, which is both captivating and scary, and it’s amazing to watch Dianne Wiest unveil herself as far more than some doddering innocent – letting out one of the best sinister laughs in recent memory when Marla confronts her after unearthing certain details about her true identity. Very much deserving special recognition is also Chris Messina as Dean Ericson – a lawyer who comes to represent Jennifer Peterson. It’s not a part with a ton of screen time, but his swagger and casually menacing demeanor is so powerful during his first meeting with Marla that you can’t help but let out an audible, “Holy shit” when the scene cuts.

There is no questioning that this is Rosamund Pike’s movie, however, who plays Marla to earn the nickname Ultimate Bitch and succeeds. The cruelty that she exhibits on the regular is shocking and awful, but also so grounded that it gives you a low-key stomachache to witness, ferociously delivered in wry smiles, coy deceptions, and clouds of vapor. On top of that, it’s further disturbing how the determination that the actor injects into the character also makes you respect Marla on a certain level – though those positive feeling are perpetually washed away when you witness said determination drive her to reach even higher echelons of despicable.

I Care A Lot operates in daylight, and it’s both beautiful and clever.

Things clearly get dark in I Care A Lot, but part of what makes the film feel particularly cold and harsh is how bright it is. Marla’s nefarious operation is not one that functions under the cover of night, but instead in fluorescent-illuminated courtrooms and nursing homes, and J Blakeson’s style shoves this fact in the audiences’ face with sharp lighting, vivid colors, and big windows. As the threat from Jennifer Peterson’s associates escalates, the aesthetic compensates, and there are sequences (again, no spoilers) that make impressive use of consuming darkness. The color is always so powerful, though, and it’s infuriating and awesome.

Mileage always varies when it comes to audiences and stories of bad people doing bad things to other bad people, and I Care A Lot is an even more extreme version of that approach than we typically see. It requires a stomach for extreme cynicism and the ability to appreciate a sadistic relationship with a protagonist, but those with the appropriate sensibilities will fall hard for this film, and continue to think about it long after viewing.

10 / 10 stars
Rating: movie reviewed star rating out of five
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