‘I Care A Lot’ and the Dynamic Between the Audience and a Villain Protagonist

Since its release on streaming services last month, I Care A Lot has been a polarising film. The Rosamund Pike led thriller is a damning look at late-stage capitalism, and how it grants success to the most ruthless and morally abhorrent people. There is nothing redeeming about Marla Grayson, or indeed most of the characters in the film, and this is something that audiences seem to have struggled with. The film currently scores a mere 37% with audiences on Rotten Tomatoes, and viewers all over social media criticised it for allegedly endorsing Marla’s behaviour. Most felt that we’re meant to root for her, despite the film showing her to be utterly contemptible (and punishing her for it at the end).

While the film is clearly not endorsing the ruthless people it presents, the controversy it’s caused raises an interesting question. If a film gives us no one to root for, why do we continue watching? Clearly, there is a complex relationship between the audience and the villain-protagonist that keeps us glued to the screen. In I Care A Lot, it’s the sheer thrill of Marla’s villainy. We are stuck between wanting so desperately to see her fail and being gobsmacked at the things she is able to achieve. As the stakes get higher, it seems likely that she will fall flat on her face (or be killed by the Russian mob), yet she continues to defy all odds.

Marla may not be likeable, but the audacity with which she plays the American justice system has us curious as to just how far she will take it. When she unsuccessfully questions Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest) on the identity of lawyer Dean Erickson’s (Chris Messina) client, she chooses to restrict her diet, socialising and medication. The suffering Marla inflicts on her wards is horrific, but it’s not just inflicted by her. There is a whole system of corrupt doctors and care home managers making cash out of abusing the elderly. J Blakeson, the film’s writer and director, claims that the narrative is based on real-life stories, where the power granted by guardianships has been exploited for personal gain.

The appalling escalation of Marla’s abuse of Jennifer, combined with the knowledge that this is something that could realistically happen, provides a grim sense of fascination. Turning away from I Care A Lot in disgust is an option, but the rife corruption that Marla exploits is so shocking that we continue on. We want to see how far it will go, and also hope that it comes to an abrupt end for Marla.

This is, of course, another reason to keep watching. If we can’t root for her success, we can root for her failure. The film definitely pays off in this regard. Marla founding a successful corporation initially sets up a potentially worrying ending, where her ruthlessness is rewarded. However, her life being taken by one of the people she wronged is a fitting end to her reign of tyranny. It is a celebratory moment of justice that confirms the film’s moral stance. Marla Grayson’s awfulness is endurable, on the condition that we get to take some satisfaction in her downfall.

While our relationship with Marla seems clearly fuelled by hatred, it’s complicated by the fact that I Care A Lot swerves from sardonic drama into some tense crime-thriller territory. The second half of the film’s narrative is full to the brim with suspense. It becomes an engrossing game of cat-and-mouse, with Marla and Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage) battling it out to see who will outsmart the other. The level of suspense the film sustains is what really complicates how we relate to Marla and Roman. We might acknowledge that they are irredeemable people, but how do we react when they are put in mortal danger?

Watching tense scenes in films often make us as viewers feel tense, almost involuntarily. The suspense increases incrementally until we react to the characters’ peril with a rush of adrenaline. When a victim in a film is running away from an axe murderer, it’s nearly impossible not to tense up, fearing for them until they either succeed or fail in their escape. There are several scenes in I Care A Lot that produce similar instinctual feelings. When Marla’s car is driven into a lake, and she comes close to drowning, I found myself holding my breath in response to her dangerous situation. Her nastiness was still in the back of my mind, but her imminent risk of death, and effort to save herself, was far too tense not to react to. The film builds suspense masterfully, to the point where we find ourselves on the edge of our seats, even though the people being threatened are impossible to care about.

This is a reminder that a good film does not necessarily hinge on the likability of its characters but on its ability to entertain or make a statement. I Care A Lot does both. As a villain-protagonist, Marla is created by the evils of late-stage capitalism, where financial gain is predicated on the exploitation of others. The film makes a statement on how people that ascribe to this mentality are rewarded, while still providing entertainment through the suspenseful crime-thriller narrative and satisfying ending.

The relationship between the audience and the villain-protagonist is complicated. We celebrate Marla facing the consequences, but I Care A Lot also keeps us anticipating her next move and leaves us gobsmacked at her immoral actions. At the end of the day, her villainy doesn’t make her an uninteresting character. The film isn’t any less suspenseful just because she deserves what happens to her. We might hate Marla’s guts, but we continue watching her story because we can’t wait to find out what might happen next.

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