It began with Amy Dunne from Gone Girl. After that, people never saw Rosamund Pike’s sweet and selfless Jane Bennet from the 2005 film Pride & Prejudice the same way again. One can give due credit to Pike’s exceptional versatility. And in her recent Netflix film, I Care A Lot, she takes bad and batshit unforgiveable to a new level.
Surprisingly (or not surprisingly), her role has ushered in very mixed responses, leading to the film receiving low ratings. The film only has a 36% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes. A big controversial take surrounds intention and execution behind the film: whether Pike’s character pandered to the white feminist ideal, an ideal that does more harm to the inclusivity of feminism than good, or if it really painted her as the conniving villain she was meant to be.
Off the bat, I am going to say it’s both and more. I believe both aspects were intentionally made to overlap to speak to an overarching social commentary. To understand the film, the audience needs to analyze the modern perception of ‘the villain’ and how that influences our taste involving a main character, particularly a female one.
Warning: If you haven’t seen the film, I don’t recommend reading any further!
Summary of I Care A Lot
I Care A Lot is a dark comedy about Marla Grayson. Marla is a state-employed caretaker who forces self-capable, wealthy elderly people into assisted living facilities to take control of their assets and get rich herself. With the help of her girlfriend Fran and ‘lawful’ connections, Marla gets away with these tactics. Until she plucks a single elderly lady who has connections to the Russian mafia.
The White Feminist Archetype
One key observation was how Marla exhibits the white feminist archetype to a T. This archetype has grown to become a harmful trope within the social inclusivity circle. For particularly women of color, it is something more recognizable, which adds to the layer of unlikability for Pike’s character. White feminism acts against the true feminist cause. It caters to only the white, conventionally attractive female, who in an effort to spew equality, ends up mirroring the same toxic traits of male white misogynists.
While not inherently bad, a questionable aspect of the film is the fantasization of the ‘girl boss’ and ‘girl power.’ It allows the kind of ‘feminist’ character at the height of her power to deliberately use her feminine traits to get away with immoral acts, even though she’s not being subdued by the system. Marla is a tall, conventionally attractive white woman, donning the white feminist caricature-esque haircut, red lipstick, and prim outfits. She takes no shit from her male counterparts. She even goes as far as describing herself as a “lioness” who rose from nothing. Not only that, but the blatant misogyny from the male characters is too apparent. It’s enough to drive home a sense of feminist agenda that acts to strengthen her stance.
The Villains of ‘I Care A Lot’
The Mafia Lawyer
Consider Dean Ericson. This lawyer tries to persuade Marla to free Jennifer, the elderly lady, whose son is a Russian mob boss. In one sequence, Dean keeps referring to the doctor whom Marla uses to gain access to the vulnerable elderly as a ‘he.’ When corrected–more than once, mind you–he goes on to call her a ‘she-doctor.’ This insult is intentional enough to provoke a reaction. It forced the audience to take Marla’s side because, between the two, feminism wins against misogyny.
The Russian Mob Boss
Peter Dinklage’s character is another example. In an attempt to seem intimidating, his first confrontation with Marla begins with him comparing her to someone he knew when he was younger — someone “fiery, confident, amusing. Uncooperative.” Although it may not mean much, his comparison strangely brings to mind the misogynistic appeal of the belligerent woman, where the man gets off on a woman’s feisty appeal. In that moment, we get a more subtle display of misogyny, with Roman trying to dominate her with threats. However, Marla remains entirely unaffected. Her stone-cold fearless reaction while still playing her opportunistic cards again serves to play into the ‘girl boss’ allure, feeding the white feminism harder.
Of course, nothing is more obviously misogynistic than the scenes with the man we see briefly in the beginning (and in the end). After winning a case in the very start of the film, Marla confronts Mr. Feldstrom’s wrath outside the courtroom. Here we get the first taste of how she uses her power to force his fully-capable mother into an elderly home, barring any contact from him, and convincing the system that she is doing the right thing. The man proceeds to throw sexist slurs and threats at her before spitting on her face, which provokes her retort:
Does it sting you more because I’m a woman? That you got so soundly beaten in there by someone with a vagina?Marla, played by Rosamund Pike
It’s probably the most blatant example of how she brings up her female assets to mask her immoral acts, overpowering him by pandering to the ‘girl boss’ ideal of white feminism even more.
Glorification or Social Commentary?
Thus, the criticism of this movie lies on whether these scenes act to glorify Marla’s white feminist character, especially since some of the reception has come with that exact takeaway–that she is ‘girl power goals’ despite being absolutely deplorable.
While that criticism is understandable, there was a bigger social commentary at play. The deliberate use of the pandering serves a purpose. It highlights Marla as a villainess that embodies traits of the toxic white feminist ideal already used in real life. The film shows how a white, successful woman like Marla uses feminism, her lioness nature, and her unwillingness to lose as playing cards to get whatever she wants. She tries to invoke sympathy, to put herself in a ‘caring,’ good light in front of the elderly and a system that she already has control over. She is successful because the system itself is dishonest. Just like the quintessential white man, she works within its lines to further her power. All these things further highlight her unlikeability, because it’s real. It’s pervasive. It’s all intentional.
Of course, that leads us to another question–why can’t people stand her as the main character? Why dislike an entire movie just because the protagonist is unabashedly evil?
The Villain vs. The Anti-Hero
There’s something about our fascination with the anti-hero that makes them a popular choice for a main character. Anti-heroes have questionable motives but still retain some attractive, often redeemable, characteristics. As an audience, we like to project onto these characters, or at the very least, find something likeable about them. Consider how Walter White from Breaking Bad is one example of an anti-hero who commits immoral acts by selling crystal meth and becoming a drug lord. He’s likeable because his purpose–to secure his family’s future after his death–is somewhat noble.
Marla, however, offers no redeemable quality.
Nothing to show that Marla does what she does because she is struggling, subdued by a corrupted system, or wants to help her loved ones before it’s too late. Even though her only humanistic side shows up when she cares for her girlfriend, Fran, her whole purpose revolves around needing to become rich. To become rich, she takes advantage of the vulnerable. She’s no anti-hero. She’s a straight up villain, which as a main character is totally acceptable. In fact, the point is to hate her, to enjoy her villainy without trying to find any redeemable trait to the very end. Her death at the very end is supposed to be satisfying, an act of justice against her kind.
People can’t stand not being able to connect with her.
However, judging by a few reviews and feedback, it seems that people can’t stand not being able to connect with her, to project what they would onto an anti-hero. Thus they criticize the premise of the movie altogether. It begs the question on whether we as an audience continuously try to find ways to justify a morally-off character for our own pleasure, and when we can’t do that, that character is not worth our time.
Marla’s like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan from Wolf of Wall Street
On the same vein, Marla is no different than someone like Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Jordan, in the Wolf of Wall Street. The latter takes advantage of the stock market to illegally take money from the vulnerable, and his character is more or less ‘revered.’ So why is one more likeable than the other? Is it because of how both protagonists are shown to reach their success and eventual downfall? Is it because Jordan’s immoral deeds are more subtle, filled with quips and underdog victories, than the blatant acts committed by Marla where she is always on top no matter what? Maybe there is just something heavily triggering to see old people get taken advantage of. Nevertheless, we must ask ourselves these kinds of questions whenever someone encompassing pure villainy takes center stage.
At the end of the day, I considered I Care A Lot a decent film. And with all these mixed reception, it makes a great piece to analyze deeply. There is something meta about justifying the hate against Pike’s character. She’s meant to be unlikeable, while still advocating her worthiness of being a protagonist as a straight-up villain. Marla is a character you love to hate. And I personally loved her heinous performance from the beginning all the way to her satisfying demise. It’s no surprise that Rosamund Pike won the award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture, Musical or Comedy in the 2021 Golden Globes.
If you have watched the movie, what were your thoughts on it? Let us know in the comments below or on Twitter @geekgalsco.
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Featured image credit: Netflix