Care facilities for the elderly and infirm are notorious for being understaffed, ill-equipped, and lonely. And throughout the months battered by Covid-19, these problems have only grown. We’ve read of old folks dying alone, surrounded by health workers in protective gear rather than loved ones. Meanwhile, New York’s Covid-19 nursing home scandal has grown so infamous as to earn its own Wikipedia page.
Now the crisis is the subject of one of Netflix’s recent films. Jonathan Blakeson’s I Care a Lot, released last month, highlights several issues surrounding care for the elderly — but giving without much of a solution.
In the 118-minute thriller, Rosamund Pike stars as Marla Grayson, a fierce entrepreneur whose success rides on a con operation: tricking a court into ruling elderly individuals incapable of self-care so that she can become their legal guardian, lock them up in a nursing home, and sell their assets.
But Marla’s latest ward, filthy-rich Jennifer Peterson (Dianne West), turns out to have powerful friends who won’t let her go without a fight.
Had it remained in the realm of a corporate drama, the film might have been worth the watch. But around a third of the way through,the plot spirals out of control with a madness that recalls Parasite: what starts out as a clever con story descends into a rampage of tit-for-tat violence.
To add to the mayhem, the film is repeatedly sloppy, with a number of plot holes. (Somehow, Marla’s lesbian partner discovers that their latest ward isn’t who she says she is, and Marla magically has all the equipment she needs to take down a hit men squad with ease.) The gaps and plot unraveling might explain why audiences panned the film, rating it a meager 37% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Even so, I Care a Lot reminds us of a stark reality: that many elderly people are alone. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2019 about 14.7 million, or 28 percent of people aged 65 and older in the United States lived alone. And a more recent report has found that nearly a quarter of Americans 65 and older are socially isolated.
Critics have praised Blakeson’s film for condemning corporate capitalism and the bureaucracies that enable villains like Marla Grayson to exist. Indeed, Marla’s opening lines present a world crippled by injustice and inequality. “There’s two kinds of people in this world,” she says. “Those who take and those gettin’ took. Predators and prey. Lions and lambs.”
However justified the condemnation might be, bureaucracy is not the only party to blame here. In order for Marla’s scheme to be successful, she needs to ensure that her wards have little to no support system — in other words, no family or friends. This points to another, perhaps even bigger problem in our society: the disintegration of the nuclear family.
Without children to care or vouch for them, elderly citizens are much more likely to end up alone in a nursing home. Or worse, they might end up at the mercy of corporate giants who, though not as villainous as Marla Grayson, care more about profit than personal flourishing.
In Blakeson’s film, it turns out Jennifer Peterson does have family members to defend her, but they happen to be Russian drug lords — not exactly the kind of family to cheer for. Although these characters pack in more action scenes, they shatter the sympathy audiences might have had for Peterson, who has ceased to represent real elderly people who suffer isolation and manipulation.
Going up against the Russian mafia makes Marla look brave, even heroic. But her opposition isn’t the only element that blurs the lines between the film’s heroes and villains.
Marla herself is as much a feminist powerhouse as a sociopathic shark. She owns her own business. She drops one-liners that strike fear into the eyes of men who confront her. She has another femme fatale at her side, both as a partner in crime and a romantic partner. In a world that preaches girl power, that doesn’t sound much like the profile of a villain. If she weren’t a con artist, Marla might be a feminist role model.
I Care a Lot might have been a great movie, had Marla met her match in an admirable foil who undoes her scheme. Instead, it offers us a contradictory message: first, that since the system is broken, you can’t beat predators like Marla through fair means; and second, that Marla is not actually a villain who deserves to be beaten.
It’s a bleak message, one that reveals the confusion of a culture that can be horrified at injustice toward the elderly and still glorify those who profit from it.