| By Ria Woodburn
When She Was Bad, She Was Horrid
In the words of screenwriter Christopher Volger, "despite its infinite variety, the hero’s story is always a journey", and through the struggles our gallant hero must face on their voyage, they are given the opportunity time and again to shine. However, what about the bad protagonist, a glittering anti-hero who owns their scandalous ways, does this journey still apply?
Luckily, I Care A Lot has the answers. Directed and written by J Blakeson I Care A Lot was born out of his fascination with the unseemly corruption of the legal guardianship system in the US. With Rosamund Pike, our lead in the film, winning a Golden Globe for her performance, it's safe to say I Care A Lot has undoubtedly made an impact with both its subject matter and character portrayal.
We meet the glorious Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) in her natural habitat; professional, poised, polished and, in a courtroom. A legal guardian to the retired, she vehemently defends her acquisition of not just their lives, but also their property and finances. The first scene sees her battling with the disgruntled son of one of her victims. He rages in court claiming that Marla has kidnapped his mother as she has recently been admitted to a care home against her will. Marla, however, keeps her cool. Although Marla’s motivations are questionable, she is in fact working in the confines of the law. Shocked but also intrigued, we may not like Marla, but we want to know more.
‘I’ve been poor, it doesn’t agree with me’
The first rule of creating a protagonist is that you simply have to care about them. But as in the film title, the word care is ambiguous, and although it hints at a warm loving feeling, its textbook definition is to ‘feel concern or interest toward something or someone’. The protagonist must merely stir a feeling of curiosity in the viewer and Marla definitely does that. Yes, we are seeing a woman who is taking advantage of a care system that is designed to protect, but the way she does it is what holds our attention. Marla charismatically pulls the wool over people’s eyes at the highest level on a daily basis. Coupled up with her right-hand woman and partner Fran (Eiza Gonzalez), this is no spur of the moment heist, but a well-oiled machine that festers in the cracks of a poorly built system. Marla is enjoying every single minute, and thoroughly entertained – so are we.
‘Appalled and equally amazed at the audacity.’
- Rosamund Pike on her role as Marla Grayson
We don’t stay in Marla’s perfect world for too long before she swindles the wrong lady, Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Weis). Sticking to the mantra that looks can be deceiving, Jennifer has a few skeletons in her closet of her own, specifically a son who happens to be a crime lord Roman Lunyov (Peter Drinklage). Bemused that his fiercely independent and capable mother Jennifer is now incarcerated in a home, his sole agenda is to get his mother back. After identifying Marla as the culprit, Roman proceeds with extortion via his lawyer which politely turns into a death threat. Marla ever the resourceful senses that there is a lot more money to be made, and begins to use Jennifer as bait. Rising to the occasion with strength and resilience, Marla is an active participant in the narrative, throwing herself into the challenge.
A protagonist’s journey can see them skipping along their merry way when an inciting incident comes out of the blue. However, thanks to Marla’s despicable behaviour she is largely responsible for her inciting incident. Think Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street or Henry Hill in Goodfellas, these are protagonists that just keep on getting themselves into more problems. Like mud, these issues stick and get increasingly harder to get out of. This is a process of self entanglement which is very much akin to the story of an anti-hero. Marla isn’t so muddy. Her obstacles are conquered with full vigour, and her head held high, as she excels against each risk.
‘…. that’s enough to use money as a weapon, like a bludgeon. The way real rich people do. That’s what I want.’
- Marla Grayson
Marla’s biggest thorn in her side is undoubtedly Roman, her equally pitted antagonist. Her relationship with Roman is at the epicentre and he is the start of all her obstacles. With the heroics of the protagonist being amplified by the power of the antagonist (Danyfer & Rush), through him Marla can keep raising her game and becomes braver in what she is willing to do. Roman’s criminal archetype is a perfect opponent, matching her motivation of greed, and thirst for acquiring wealth through unsavoury and often illegal means. Both opponents wear masks of respectability to weave themselves into society.
Roman, however, recognises this in Marla and tries to use it to expose her in her domain, the courtroom. Of course, he isn’t successful, so he has to revert to his dirty tricks with Marla attacking back with similar gusto. There can be a temptation to make a protagonist superhuman in the face of an unyielding antagonist. But although a fictional story, I Care A Lot is dealing with a very real abuse. Official statistics are scarce, however, The U.S Accountability Office (GAO) reported in 2010 that hundreds of allegations of physical neglect, abuse, and financial exploitation existed within guardianships (within the period of 1990 -2010). So it is imperative that when Marla fights back it is in the realm of human possibility – even if it does stretch the boundaries. The scene of no return, when Marla escapes from drowning by Roman and his group of nasties is farfetched, but it is plausible. As by then, Marla’s cast iron zeal has manifested in a way that we are fully aware of what lengths she will go to, to win.
‘Having the sort of yin and yang of amorality pitted against each other and putting them in a death match of who’s going to give up first seems like a bit of a delicious prospect.’ J Blakeson Jennifer despite being snared in Marla’s scam also provides another adversary. Although we initially think she is a victim, Jennifer being a former head of a criminal family is no stranger to the spoils of turf wars. Her refusal to give into Marla, no matter how hard she makes her life in the care home reiterates the strength of the opponent she has with her son.
If nothing that Marla has exhibited so far has got you on her side, you can at least relate to her love for Fran. This is her redeeming quality as we see she is human after all, and even more than that she will risk her life for love. We see a similar dynamic in the Netflix thriller YOU, with the lead Joe Goldberg. An obsessive stalker and self-confessed love addict, Joe’s charming demeanour hides a dangerous personality that spills over to murder. But his capacity to love and willingness to give total adoration to his unsuspecting partner is his saving grace – blurring the lines of personal boundaries.
Both Marla’s and Joe’s capacity for love seems normal, but what they do for it is out of this world. Fran also doubles as Marla’s conscious, and echoes questions that we as spectators also have whirling in our head. However, the pressure she puts on Marla, doesn’t last long, as cut from the same cloth these concerns are quickly overridden. Before the attempt on her life, we may have even begun to question her love for Fran. But Marla’s decision to not abandon Fran is crucial for our acceptance of her and gives the audience the ability to be able to relate. This pans nicely into the overall theme of I Care A Lot, what people do for or to preserve love. Marla for her love of Fran and Roman for the love of his mother. Bad guys have problems too and most controversially hearts.
‘We need to feel something for all our characters, good, bad, or in-between, and the more in-between the better.’
Cinema has graced us with many anti-heroes, Marla Grayson isn’t the first and won’t be the last. But while the majority of these are already criminals, or on the fringes of the law, Marla has chosen to operate within it. Controversially it is that very law that allows her to abuse it. She is supposed to care, she just chooses not to, preferring the wealth that comes with it. I Care A Lot has raised criticism over its turning away from the subject of the health care system, with it becoming a side-line to Marla’s and Roman’s cat and mouse game. However, once you have accepted that the guardianship process is subject to abuse, where else is there to go but voyeur into the world of people that profit from the loopholes.
The film isn’t a war of good versus evil, it is about stretching the boundaries of morality. Which poignantly may only come down to what someone can get away with. Marla does get comeuppance, but by then the damage is well and truly done – and now on a global scale. She has created a beast that will still be breathing even in her death. This is the beauty of the anti-hero, the protagonist who you love to hate, through them you can get a glimpse into your own moral psychology. Perhaps you loath Marla’s behaviour, or maybe you're frustrated that you can’t switch off your conscious to do the same. Either way, you probably know someone who exhibits at least some of her attributes. You might even recognise them as part of yourself. As the mighty Marla says in her opening monologue, you’re either a lion or a lamb, and who knows, she could be right.
- VOGLER, Christopher, The Writer’s Journey, Mythic Structure For Writers (California: Michael Wiese Productions, 1998), p. 7.
- BLAKESON, J. 2020 . I Care A Lot [Film].
- CAMBRIDGE DICTIONARY. Available at: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/care [accessed 18 March 2021].
- CINEXPRESS. 2021. Interview: Rosamund Pike talks I CARE A LOT and GONE GIRL [Interview]. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-YTzJxxSE6w [accessed 28 March 2021].
- SCORSESE, Martin. 2013. The Wolf of Wall Street [Film].
- SCORSESE, Martin. 1990. Goodfellas [Film].
- YORKE, John, Into the Woods, How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them (Milton Keynes: Penguin Random House UK, 2013).
- GURNON, Emily. 2016. Article on Guardianship in the US in Forbes [online]. Available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/nextavenue/2016/05/23/guardianship-in-the-u-sprotection-or-exploitation/?sh=6b93c2e73b49 [accessed 23 April 2021]. NEMIROFF, Perri. 2021. Interviewing J Blakeson in Collider [online]. Available at https://collider.com/is-i-care-a-lot-a-true-story-j-blakeson-interview/ [accessed 12 April 2021].
-LEE, Jason, The Psychology of Screenwriting, Theory and Practice (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), p. 73.
(Image Copyright: Amazon Prime, Netflix)
Ria is a graduate of Falmouth University's MA Writing for Script and Screen programme where she earned a first-class honours degree. A horror and thriller enthusiast, these are her preferred genres to write. Regularly updating her blog, she is currently writing a gothic horror and resides in the Midlands, UK.
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