And the “Most Unexpected Film of TIFF 2020” award goes to I Care a Lot, which sounds like a drama about elder abuse but is, in fact, a wildly dark, pitch black comedy about terrible people doing terrible things. Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike at her most deliciously mean) is a professional guardian, a person appointed by the court to oversee the care of elderly patients with no family—or no family ruled competent enough—to take care of them. There is no veneer, from the opening scene when a desperate man (Macon Blair) accuses Marla of “kidnapping” his mother, it is apparent she is running a scam, taking advantage of even the slightest weaknesses to pry elderly patients with money from their families and then liquidate their assets while her “wards” rot in nursing homes. It’s absolutely morally repugnant and Pike is having the time of her life playing Marla. She hasn’t been this well served on screen since Gone Girl.
Written and directed by J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed), I Care a Lot is UNBELIEVABLY mean-spirited, and Marla’s scam is just the tip of the iceberg. What she really wants is a “cherry”, an elderly person with a lot of money and no close friends or family, someone she can dump in a home and squeeze for every cent for years. She believes she finds this person in Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest, also clearly having a ball), a nice old lady with no family or close friends, but a huge house and a fat retirement portfolio. On a pretext of forgetfulness, Marla has herself declared Jennifer’s guardian, and all seems to be working out for Marla.
But then a jumpy taxi driver shows up at Jennifer’s house to take her somewhere, and suddenly Jennifer Peterson is not all she seems. Marla finds herself locked in battle with a surprisingly cunning old lady, and then a smarmy lawyer (Chris Messina) shows up to attempt to bribe her to let Jennifer go. You think Marla can’t get any worse, but then she is blatantly abusing an old lady and locking horns with a mob boss, Roman (Peter Dinklage, also relishing his role), and then people start dying and I Care a Lot becomes a game of one-upmanship between the worst people in the world. This is the kind of film where you root for everyone to die, because no one deserves to get what they want.
That makes the ending kind of a bummer, though, because I Care a Lot tacks on some moral payback the film really doesn’t need. Yes, you want everyone to die in a fire because every single character is despicable, but the whole point of the film is terrible people doing terrible things and getting away with it. Its repugnance is delicious, and there is already a kind of catharsis in enjoying rooting for the bad guy. Do you want Marla to win? Or Jennifer? Or Roman? Or do you want them all to get hit by a Mack truck? Any and all of those things! This is a film populated entirely by villains, and sometimes it’s fun to root for the villain. The moral coda feels conciliatory, a plea to not reject the film because it is so viciously, unapologetically amoral right up until the end.
Slight moral coda at the end aside, I Care a Lot is the kind of savage black comedy that comes along once in a great while and entertains as much as it enrages. The characters may be awful and you actively hope they all get eaten by sharks, but it is pure joy to watch a cast of this caliber sink their teeth into roles this meaty. We rarely get to see Pike—an icy blonde Hitchcock would have loved—indulge herself to this degree. Blakeson understands the power of her chilly presence and lets her go full ice queen in what is basically a “one last score” heist that goes horribly awry. And Dinklage hasn’t had this much to play since the trial of Tyrion Lannister, it’s nice to see his exact combination of foreboding and latent malice again. I Care a Lot is not going to be for everyone—it’s way too mean-spirited—but if you’re into crime capers featuring a cast of unrepentant assholes, then this is the film for you.