Wednesday, 10 March 2021

I Care a Lot

I Care a Lot
, by J Blakeson, came out in Australian cinemas a few weeks ago. Last week, in the midst of a profound government crisis, the Australian Prime Minister revealed a Royal Commission report into the aged care sector – more than a thousand pages detailing short-comings, failings, abuses, and recommendations as to how to create a true system of care that provides dignity. The next years will show how many of these recommendations will be realised. 

What I mean when I name these two facts in succession is that it is impossible to watch I Care a Lot, a film about a duo of grifters who exploit legal guardianship to amass a steady income stream from elderly people in involuntary care, without thinking of the horrible abuses, the physical suffering, detailed in newspaper reports about the conditions in care homes. To call them unimaginable would be a lie – it is very much imaginable that a privatised system from which someone seeks to profit would deliver these results. The thing that is hard to swallow is that tells its story from the perspective of those who are profiting, and that it pits them not against a system of justice attempting to end the loophole that allows them to exploit, but against an individual who happens to be well-connected to the mob. There’s nobody to root for here – and if you, the viewer, happen to find yourself rooting for anyone, the film makes it very clear that it’s a moral failure. 

None of this is to say that I Care a Lot isn’t a good film. It’s more of a question of what I expected of it, or how far I expected it to be willing to go – in terms of tone, the closest reference point for me is Mary Harrons’ adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, which was undermining and re-interpreting its source material as it went along. It’s a satire of contemporary capitalism, for the 2020s, perfectly adjusted to the idea that the heroine of the story could be a white, queer woman (here played by a once again fantastic Rosamund Pike, creating her own very peculiar niche) who is hustling the way the American Dream tells her to. It’s a satire of a particular kind of girl-boss feminism as well, one that appears to exist entirely separated from any other considerations about societal transformation or resistance to exploitation. Instead, I Care a Lot presents a loophole in the justice system as a convenient income stream for those willing to use it. Pike’s Marla Grayson pays off a doctor (Alicia Witt) to find her elderly patients mentally incapable of taking care of themselves, and then takes these reports to a compassionate judge, who appoints her as a guardian. She then puts the elderly in a care home, run by another person in her pocket, and begins selling off their belongings, providing a steady income stream. You could pitch the business model in an elevator, it fits perfectly into the language of entrepreneurial founder capitalism, which also rarely asks about morality or consequences. A system already built in a way that it is not difficult to take agency from people presents an opportunity to exploit that lack of agency not just for financial gain, but to build an entire business model upon it. 

The hook of the film – or maybe what made it easy to sell – is that Marla tries to exploit the wrong woman. In what is maybe one of the best scenes of the film, Dianne Wiest’s Jennifer Peterson becomes swept up in it, sees her life change radically from one moment to the next when she is picked up from her house, asked to pack a bag, and finds herself welcomed in a care home she never signed up for. When trying to protest this swift change, or prove her own agency and capability, she is chemically restrained and drugged into quietness. Except Jennifer Peterson doesn’t really exist, she is the stolen identity of a woman whose son runs the local mob, and is eager to safe her from the maws of the bureaucracy she is trapped in, and to take revenge on the woman who has done this to her. 

The second twist of the film isn’t so much that Marla, in her resourcefulness, along with her investigator girlfriend Fran (Eiza Gonz├ílez, very memorable) manages to outsmart Peter Dinklage – for one, I Care a Lot never maps out exactly where Marla’s resourcefulness comes from, apart from a few hints that her childhood was probably not very happy – it’s that once she has done it, and done to Dinklage’s Roman what she did to his mother (other reviewers have pointed out that the film very oddly does not acknowledge in any way the specific ways in which the system is built to abuse people living with disabilities), he realises her full potential and becomes her partner in crime, to turn the grift into an empire of exploitation, one that is lauded for all the reasons mentioned above. Marla, is after doing exactly what the self-improvement literature of the 21st century is asking of everyone: fulfilling her potential, regardless of what that means for anyone else. The twist is that this already exists, that privately run care-homes are for-profit businesses, which means that the care residents aren’t even consumers, which already would be a problem, but a profit-generating good, that becomes more profitable the fewer resources have to be put into its production – including food and hours worked by care staff. The true twist of the film is that what is easy to call "deliciously evil" misses the mark that satire is a concentrated version of a reality that exists. We could talk about what it means then that Marla’s downfall isn’t a systemic attempt to right her wrongs, or to create a system in which such exploitation becomes impossible, but one wronged guy with a gun.

2020, directed by J Blakeson, starring Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage, Eiza Gonz├ílez, Dianne Wiest, Chris Messina, Alicia Witt. 

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