Culture Film & TV

‘I Care A Lot’: A commentary on amoral female protagonists

Illustration by Tabitha Underhill

It has long been a frustration of mine that many of the respected and pivotal cinematic achievements of Hollywood centre around narratives of almost exclusively straight, white men, often purporting a misogyny, intolerance and bigotry that is supposedly ‘of its time’. As someone deeply committed to exploring my love of film, it often feels like a chore to watch many of these giants of cinema, from ‘The Godfather’ trilogy, to ‘Reservoir Dogs,’ to ‘Taxi Driver’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’. Even voicing my frustration feels inherently wrong; I can never seem to shake the sense that I have to love these films or else I am unworthy of having a relevant opinion on cinema itself. And whilst of course, I am not saying by any means that these are bad films, or that they don’t deserve the accolades attributed to them, I do strongly believe that art should always be in dialogue with itself, and that many of these works are simply too outdated for many modern viewers not to question them, and that we should be able to have open conversations about their flaws and prejudices.

Applying this background to the recent ‘I Care A Lot’ demonstrates how contemporary film makers are now playing around with forms of character and narrative from older Hollywood cinema. My gut reaction to the film was to place it alongside the likes of the gangster heavy narratives of ‘The Godfather’ and ‘Reservoir Dogs’ in terms of its desire to paint all its protagonists as not only flawed, but morally corrupt. Without going into too much detail, the film revolves around Rosamund Pike’s character Marla Grayson who has created a business centred around exploiting isolated elderly individuals by becoming their guardian, placing them in assisted living facilities then selling their homes and possessions. The nature of her con-artistry is impressively abhorrent: she demonstrates no empathy or remorse, viewing these people solely through their ability to make her money. She is smooth-talking, unapologetic and fascinatingly watchable, aided by Pike’s cool and understated characterisation.

As with many gangster films, the plot centres around the acquisition of money and power, with Director J. Blakeson cleverly mediating the line between shock and intrigue. The colour palette is loud and vibrant, Grayson taking centre stage as she navigates a myriad of situations, always managing to end up on top. Her relationship with her business partner Fran is also a highlight of the film: it is refreshing to see a queer relationship included not to challenge the characters or even provide any form of social commentary, but as a natural and unquestioned aspect. In general, the film commits to having many of the surrounding characters that Grayson interacts with as female: most of the doctors, police officers and colleagues we see her interact with are women, deliberately creating a setting distinct from the male-driven environments we are used to seeing in these contexts. Grayson’s desire for money is thankfully not coloured (as many female narratives are) by a desire to shop more or covet material goods: she desires success, and she believes that within the capitalist market, exploitation is a necessity of the system.

“There’s two types of people in this world. Those who take and those that get took. Predators and prey. Lions and lambs. My name is Marla Grayson and I’m not a lamb. I am a f*cking lioness.”

What ‘I Care A Lot’ is able to do fairly uniquely is present a narrative where there are no moral individuals. It is an astute portrait of who capitalism enables and who it destroys, and it constantly interacts with social taboos: the choice to have Grayson’s victims as defenceless elderly people deliberately encourages the audience to hate her, especially as she is acting in opposition to the care-giving role that we usually expect of women. However, I found it very difficult to dislike her fully; perhaps this is my own bias, as just seeing such a complex and deliberately toxic female character on screen (who was not simply an oversexualised villain or virtuous victim) is so refreshing. In a similar manner to Pike’s other notably ‘difficult’ woman Amy in ‘Gone Girl’, she is intoxicatingly watchable.

Narratives like this are not attempting to prescribe right and wrong, but to revel in the familiar environment of gangsters and businessmen of the films of old, while reimagining the genre by focusing on a female protagonist. Despite the relative critical success of the film, I had an amusing time scrolling through the embittered (mostly male) audience reviews; a particular favourite was “I was angry the entire movie! Such an unlikable character. Plus the man hating strong woman agenda is getting old…” Cutting edge insights everywhere you turn! But joking aside, the sheer number of angry reviews left on the Rotten Tomatoes and Imdb pages point to an inability of many audience members to watch a film with an ‘unlikeable’ female protagonist, clearly highlighting lingering societal discomfort in viewing these forms of narrative. It is not a new concept to have a morally corrupt, capitalism-driven, scheming lead role: there are endless examples of protagonists throughout cinema who exploit, corrupt, maim and murder the weak and vulnerable, but we are still more accepting of this position if it is held by a man. Take ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, a film which deliberately and overtly critiques the vacuous destructive capabilities of those at the top of the capitalist agenda, but which bizarrely is heralded as a sort of playboy’s manual by many.

‘I Care A Lot’ has its flaws, but it is does enable conversations about how we need to expand the scope of female narratives. Viewers might be comfortable with female leads, yet seemingly only if these leads subscribe to a morally righteous agenda, and when they are denied the ability to be complex and multi-faceted in ways that male protagonists are readily allowed. In the growing necessity for diversity, ‘I Care A Lot’ marks a point of growth, offering a challenge to all viewers in the form of difficult characters that defy traditional expectations.

Reya Muller

Reya (she/her) is a Theatre Editor at the Oxford Blue. Outside of her degree, Reya spends most of her time involved in student theatre and is an avid writer of both prose and poetry. She was an editor for the lockdown art collective Hypaethral and has published articles at the Blue ranging from gushing about Michaela Coel to describing how best to fry bread (never too much butter). In her spare time, she can be found either making or eating dumplings.