Rosamund Pike and Peter Dinklage are so good at giving us characters we love to hate – she in “Gone Girl,” he in “Game of Thrones” – that it’s wickedly satisfying to watch them tussle while at the top of their games in “I Care a Lot.”
Written and directed by J Blakeson (“The Disappearance of Alice Creed”), the dark crime comedy/thriller (★★★½ out of four; rated R; streaming Friday on Netflix) is a genre-exploding effort that’s awash in ethical quandaries and is severely lacking in good guys.
That’s kind of the point, though: On one hand, the core conceit – about elderly people suffering thanks to crooks and legal loopholes – is upsetting and infuriating on the surface. But Blakeson puts such a colorful, over-the-top sheen on it, plus lets Pike and Dinklage loose on each other, that you can’t help but be entertained by the criminal carnage and extreme shenanigans.
Marla Grayson (Pike) is an audacious grifter who, in her words, “cares.” With her lover/partner Fran (Eiza Gonzalez), Marla runs an operation where she takes over the legal guardianship of older folks who, after some courtroom wrangling and accomplices in the right places, are deemed unable to take care of themselves. The aging wards end up trapped in a facility, and while they’re drugged into submission, Marla and Fran bill them and sell off possessions until the money machine runs out or they die.
They’ve got it down to a cruel science, and when one of their client dies after a stroke, a swank room opens up to place another victim. And this one’s a rare “cherry”: Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) is a wealthy retired businesswoman with no family or heirs – and a medical diagnosis that the morally warped can make work in their favor. But Marla has railroaded the wrong person this time, and she runs afoul of someone close to the older woman, a smoothie-drinking gangster named Roman (Dinklage).
Marla proves a formidable foil for him, and vice versa, but Roman has no mercy when it comes to putting the shady conservator in her place. They engage in a violent cat-and-mouse game that takes its toll on both players and causes shifting loyalties for the audience. Sometimes you’ll root for Roman, sometimes (shockingly) for Marla, and they even surprise each other with the devotion to their causes. “Your determination is scary,” Roman tells her with begrudging respect.
It’s a perfect role for Dinklage and one that mines his engaging charisma and gravitas. Roman manages to be an even more enigmatic presence than his “Thrones” antihero Tyrion Lannister, yet Dinklage also gives him a vulnerability that can’t help but emerge from a steely facade.
Marla also puts up a front, though hers is nigh impenetrable. In Pike’s best performance since 2014’s “Gone Girl,” she rules the proceedings as a flawed character who’s flawless when it comes to gaming the system. And woe be unto anyone who gets in her way: When Roman sends a smarmy lawyer (Chris Messina) to shake her down, he gets a large dose of her righteous (at least in her mind) anger: In one of the movie’s cooler visuals, smoke comes out of Marla’s nose – the product of her vaping habit – and she looks like a cartoon bull about ready to gore an underestimating foe.
Blakeson’s character development is a slight issue; Marla and Roman are the most fleshed-out people, and you get only a tease as to their origins. (The fact that they are mysteries does add to each of their legends, however.) The director’s biting satire and well-paced plot are on point, however, and “I Care a Lot” provides an immersive, sometimes quirky narrative with a boffo ending you will definitely dig a lot.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'I Care a Lot' review: Rosamund Pike, Peter Dinklage lead Netflix film