Let’s celebrate our 2021 essay with a nasty, darkly comic thriller that made me question everything that I’ve watched since I saw it. I am of course referring to I Care A Lot. You thought I meant TeneT, didn’t you?


(Note: this is my most spoiler-filled essay, so be warned if you’ve not yet seen I Care A Lot and care a lot about knowing the plot. –Ed.)


There are thresholds of behavior for protagonists. Up to a certain point, we like a character and root for them to succeed. Jaywalk? No problem. Outwit a corrupt cop? Sure. Steal a Picasso from a museum? OK. But there’s a point where their actions cross over, and then we’re rooting for their downfall (or for the movie to end). Or perhaps more accurately, there are thresholds for protagonists who we are expected to like? Michael Corleone in The Godfather (1972, 1974, 1990) is despicable and scheming, but we don’t lose sight of this and there’s no amount of murders that will make us like him less (nor is there any amount of redemption that will let us like him more). Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990) is similarly amoral and gross. We’re briefly charmed by Vincent in Collateral (2004) until he kills the jazz club owner. For the rest of that movie, the scales have been removed from our eyes.

I talked briefly about different thresholds for horror in the Constantine installment, but it never dawned on me that a similar heuristic could be applied to action movies (or comedies or thrillers or…). This is obvious in hindsight, but until I watched I Care A Lot, I didn’t find myself engaged in introspection about characters in thrillers. I think this is perhaps because the line is never as hazy as it is in I Care A Lot.  But thinking back to the zillion thrillers that I’ve seen, it always felt clear-cut whether I identified with a character or slid into the passive seat where I was instead just watching a story unfold about characters for whom I felt no attachment. Part of the brilliance of I Care A Lot, and Rosamund Pike’s performance as Marla, is in taking a conventional stock character, the grifter, and making us uncomfortable when their grift is deeply unpleasant despite portraying/filming the character as sympathetic and likeable.

Because from a mile in the sky, Marla’s skills are similar to those of Henry Gondorff in The Sting (1973) and Marty Bishop in Sneakers (1993). She utilizes a web of accomplices and legal loopholes to squeeze the wealthy out of their money. She controls her spending to maintain her grifts. And her panache is undeniable: she dresses sharply, is extremely thorough and professional, and has the unending confidence of a dictator. And, as the movie shows us, the grift in the film revolves around stealing assets from a mobster. You’re all in, right? Attractive lady with a great haircut, a beautiful girlfriend, and an extremely clever scheme steals money from the mob.

I left out a part. Oops. Marla’s grift is in utilizing a network of healthcare professionals and legal aides to help her get power-of-attorney over elderly people. She then gets them committed to an assisted living facility for the remainder of their lives, and she sells off all of their assets to pay for fraudulent invoices and overcosted medical expenses. Are you still on her side?

This is the movie’s trick. We’re not watching a sociopath portrayed as in Nightcrawler (2014), where we see the depths that a loathsome figure will dredge in the name of personal success. Marla is lit like a heroine, she’s played like a heroine, and she’s dressed for us to like her. She’s 100%, dogmatically professional like any Steven Soderbergh or Michael Mann career criminal. And like the criminals glamorized in other movies, she has an elaborate scheme that we watch unfold.

But it’s different. She’s crossed a threshold. She’s not just taking money, she strips individuals of their personhood and agency to achieve her goals, and they slowly wither as their lawyers are tied up in legal red tape. I Care A Lot doesn’t show us a bag of money and then a celebration, it shows us a person hauled to a facility in an ambulance, where a corrupt healthcare provider misdiagnoses them on purpose so that they are given sedatives to keep them weak. Then we see them slowly wither as Marla finds a new target.

The filmmakers know this. They know how thrillers work. This is when they deploy the movie’s second clever manipulation of our expectations. Because Marla finds a wealthy lady with seemingly no ties (Jennifer Peterson, played by Dianne Wiest) and employs her grift, but this lady is the mother of mobster Roman (Peter Dinklage, also putting in an awesome performance). Whoops. And Roman will do anything it takes to recover his mother. Ahh, our brains think, now we get to see Marla the monster punished for her horrible crimes and her web of monsters all brought down. All of those helpless people rotting in facilities, we’ll see justice done via these mobsters. LOL NOPE. The film makes us stay on Marla’s side as she outwits the mobsters at every turn. We don’t get justice because the movie won’t let us have it. Instead we continue to watch Marla portrayed as the hero of this film.

The third manipulation is when Marla brokers a partnership with the mobster, and together they elevate her gross healthcare grift to the national level. The last part of the movie shows Marla getting wealthier and wealthier as new caregiver franchises open countrywide. It becomes an epidemic of stealing the life of the elderly, but it is all bright smiles and hagiographic lighting for Marla.

Only once we’ve given in does the filmmaker deliver the last manipulation. “I guess that’s how this ends, with Marla succeeding,” I thought glumly. She’s saved her girlfriend, outwitted the mob, escaped justice, and has become a national news circuit celebrity. “I guess this is a critique on our healthcare system.” And then KAPOW, she is shot outside a news station where she’d just given an interview. She falls to the sidewalk, dying. Her killer is the son of a woman who Marla fleeced at the start of the film. And that woman died in the assisted care facility before the son could get her released. Justice arrives bitterly and very late to the party. And it isn’t satisfying, which is seemingly the point. Marla’s murder comes too late to stop her scheme from becoming an institution, and Roman, the figure who we assumed would stop her, has become part of the grift. It’s futility all the way down.

It is impossiible not to draw comparisons to Gone Girl (2014), featuring Pike’s other despicable protagonist Amy. The difference, and why I think that I Care A Lot is the superior film, is that Ben Affleck as Nick (and in a different way, Neil Patrick Harris) in Gone Girl is also loathsome, so when he gets framed, we are kind of fine with it. Marla’s grift in I Care A Lot never gives us an easy way to condone her bad behaviors, because the pain on Dianne Wiest’s face gives us infinite sympathy for her that is wholly absent in Nick.

So since I’ve seen I Care A Lot, I’ve found myself questioning what I condone as I watch movies. “Getting the elderly involuntarily commmitted” is clearly over the line of what I can stomach, and now it’s become a process of finding what else is over that threshold. Maybe I’m just becoming a prude, or maybe the very stressful events of the past five years (since, say, November 2016) made a lot of things less palatable. It is also difficult to condone wanton gun violence in movies when living in a world of daily mass shootings. It’s probably time to focus on comedy and absurdist stuff for a while. I don’t know where the thriller can even go after movies like I Care A Lot and Gone Girl. Perhaps body horror as in Titane (2021) or allegory like Parasite (2019) holds the key. A little artifice and detachment seem necessary, at least for me to engage, because it’s hard to root for a villain after I Care A Lot so bluntly asked me why I am doing it.


Other 2020 candidates: One Night in Miami; Da 5 Bloods; Tenet; The Devil All the Time; Extraction


I turn 40 in December. To commemorate the milestone, I’m writing 40 short biographical essays pertaining to a movie per year of my life.