How much can a movie be messed up by its last two minutes? That's not a purely hypothetical question I ponder, as I consider the merits of I Care A Lot. On the one hand, it's a terrifically acidic black comedy for the vast majority of its running time, poking into dark corners of the peculiarly American brand of relentless, amoral pursuit of financial success that haven't really been mined previously. And on the other hand, it concludes on a note of moralism that seems out of synch with everything that had come before. What, exactly, is this movie trying to tell us about chasing the ugliest interpretation of the American Dream?
Our (anti-)heroine is Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike), owner of a company that provides guardianship services for seniors who are no longer able to care for themselves. At least, that's the version that Marla promotes to the rest of the world. In fact, her operation is mostly a long con game, collaborating with long-term care facilities and doctors to wheedle control of the assets of wealthy "clients," then draining their accounts dry and working the legal system while family members fight for access.
The ideal target for someone like Marla is a "cherry" like Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest)—financially secure, seemingly with no living family members, and an easy target for Marla's doctor/conspirator (Alicia Witt) to gin up evidence that Jennifer is no longer able to take care of herself. Unfortunately for Marla, her information isn't entirely accurate, because Jennifer does have family. And that family (Peter Dinklage) is "Family" in the more dangerous, popular-culture sense of the word.
The icy heart at the center of I Care a Lot is Marla herself, and Pike is perfect in the role. As she already proved in Gone Girl, Pike has a gift for conveying a lethal brand of ferocity. Decked out in a severe blonde bob and dagger heels, Marla presents to the world as an almost stereotypical version of the corporate bitch, yet there's something distinctive about Pike's ability to make Marla scariest in her absolute fearlessness.
A lot of that comes from the character as written, and writer/director J Blakeson bakes into Marla's backstory an angle that makes for a different arc than the set-up would you lead you to expect. Instead of this manipulator of the old and helpless getting a comeuppance once she faces an adversary as brutal as she is, we get at how hard it is to shake Marla. That's a function of being a woman accustomed to threats of violence, and a gay woman on top of that, with such a poisoned relationship with her own mother that she effectively responds to a threat against her mother's life with "be my guest." There's nothing brand-new about noting the overlap between organized crime and cutthroat capitalism, but I Care a Lot tangles that idea up with sexism and homophobia to explore how being even more sociopathic to get a seat at the table can feel like a perfectly rational choice.
Blakeson directs with a terrific sense of style, particularly during an extended montage that turns Marla's exploitation of Jennifer's assets into a demonstration of almost machine-like efficiency. Much of the second act evolves into a crime thriller, and it's quite satisfying on that level, following Marla and the mysterious adversary played by Dinklage trading the upper hand on the way to an intriguing resolution.
Except that it's not actually the resolution. It's only possible to tiptoe around the issue without blatant spoilers, but what at first seems like a grim little coda takes an unexpected turn just before the closing credits start to roll. The problem with what happens in those final moments is that it seems to take in a completely different direction the tone that Blakeson had built for nearly two hours. Maybe it actually works as a justification of Marla's actions and her status as an outsider, or maybe it attempts to build sympathy where there really shouldn't be any. Perhaps it's evidence of a thorny, thoughtful script that I'm left with such uncertainty, even as I can't help feeling like a chef's last-minute attempt to add a new flavor to something that was already superb in its pure tartness.