This review contains spoilers.
Letterboxd user Jay wrote in their review of 2021’s I Care A Lot, directed by J Blakeson, ‘ladies, is it girlboss to trap the elderly in facilities and profit from selling their assets?’ This sentiment effectively encapsulates everything about the film that viewers have both hated and admired. It is faux-feminist, the story of a woman giving quote unquote ‘badass’ one-liners and monologues as she defrauds and imprisons vulnerable older people for no other reason than to get rich—but how far is this narrative an ironic one?
The film begins with Marla Grayson winning a court battle in favour of her guardianship of one particular elderly lady, whose son is desperate to see her. When he confronts her outside court, Marla righteously accuses him of misogyny—despite the fact that he only wants to see his mother, whom Marla has stolen away. She is hardly a feminist icon. As the film continues, she unknowingly targets the mother of a Russian mafia boss; the two play a deadly game of tug-of-war, until ultimately Marla wins, and has impressed said boss so much that he offers her a business partnership. She becomes rich, like she always dreamt of being. The catch? The son of the first elderly lady kills her at the end.
So what exactly is I Care a Lot trying to do? It’s certainly not a searing critique of a capitalist system that forces those at the bottom to do bad things to get to the top, as some reviewers have suggested. We never see Marla’s difficult past, alluded to only by a stray line and her disregard for her ‘sociopathic’ mother—nor do we have any clues as to the situation of Fran, her co-worker/girlfriend/partner-in-crime. Roman, the Russian mob boss with a fondness for French patisserie, does not seem to lack financially at all. His decision to go into business with Marla at the end is prompted by something like admiration of grit—she simply refuses to die, despite being pumped full of vodka and driven off a cliff into a lake—and the hope of billions of dollars, apparently. He becomes her Alan Sugar.
We are constantly told about richness, her desire for it and her later achievement of it, but we are scarcely allowed to see it.
For she is, fundamentally, an entrepreneur. Dean, the lawyer tasked with freeing Jennifer Peterson, describes Marla’s set up as the ultimate expression of the American Dream, and it is—but she’s no Gatsby. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s skilful takedown of the Dream focused on its hedonism, its opulence, its careless exploitation. Marla Grayson is anything but careless. She is focused, driven. The rewards of her racket are never foregrounded; we are never shown a shopping spree, an extravagant party, a plane ticket to Bali. Her townhouse is clearly expensive, but quietly so; even her sports car at the end is shown only in a frame or two. We are constantly told about richness, her desire for it and her later achievement of it, but we are scarcely allowed to see it. This is a film that says it’s about money. But something of the sticky cloying nature of wealth and the desire for wealth, conveyed so well in films like The Wolf of Wall Street, is missing.
That isn’t to say that this isn’t a film about money. What it really isn’t is a film about class structure. Marla’s trajectory is from respectably affluent to obscenely rich: her prior poverty is never shown to us. She embodies a place of privilege from the moment she appears on screen, in a courtroom whose judge she is friendly with, so well versed in the law she can apparently represent herself. She is cool, collected, pantsuit-wearing; she calls herself a ‘fucking lioness’ and tells a man she might ‘rip [his] balls off’ within the first ten minutes. She is, as the increasingly popular internet adage goes, a girlboss.
The phrase gained popularity in 2014, with entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso’s pop-feminist memoir #Girlboss, which pioneered a trickle-down economics brand of feminism: take yourself to the top, and you’ll uplift others on the way. The idea caught on. As Amanda Mull puts it, ‘Instead of dismantling the power men had long wielded in America, career women could simply take it for themselves at the office.’ Feminism became less about deconstruction and more about manipulation; it became selfish, rather than revolutionary.
Feminism became less about deconstruction and more about manipulation; it became selfish, rather than revolutionary.
This notion permeated outside business circles and into the way feminists engage with media. It influenced media creation and reception; after the girlboss businesswoman, there came the girlboss character.
So how does one define a ‘girlboss’ character? Well, take a conventionally attractive white woman, place a few zeroes in her bank account, give her a bad attitude and a tube of red lipstick and absolutely nothing else, and you have a readymade girlboss. General ‘badassery’ defines the girlboss; she is cruel to men who often do, but sometimes don’t, deserve it; bonus points if she has a gun. What she lacks is any real depth, any flaws, any development. Often a character is not written this way, but fans of the media item will flatten them into this stale character cutout out of perceived feminism. It is a rejection of the phrase’s patronising tone when used in business. Some see it as reclamation: “Yes, I am a girl, and I am your fucking boss. Does that emasculate you?” (the use of the word ‘fucking’ is also a mandatory facet of the type). Think Nancy Wheeler (Stranger Things) calling her working class boyfriend ‘Oliver Twist’ before killing her zombified boss, Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones) calling herself a lion as she commits mass murder of the subjects she is meant to protect, Amy Dunne inventing stories of abuse to get back at her cheating husband.
Amy Dunne, of Gillian Flynn and David Fincher’s Gone Girl, is a classic and deliberately chosen example. She is privileged and wealthy and reacts to her husband’s cheating on her by framing him for her own murder. Soon after the film’s release, the phrase Amy Dunne was right saturated the internet, mainly in jest, but with an undercurrent of righteous, self-empowered feminism. Watching her cruelty to men who were creepy (Desi Collings) or selfish and neglectful (Nick Dunne) felt good. But a subset of feminists took an enjoyable element of fictional media and made it a part of their manifesto: Amy Dunne was henceforth the face of the girlboss movement, a movement of white feminists, middle-class and above, who work entirely for their own ends and care nothing for anyone else. Marla Grayson fits right in.
The face and voice of the character that launched a thousand angry white women returns to flesh out the girlboss archetype—with a twist.
Marla and Amy share the same face: Rosamund Pike plays both characters. This is not a coincidence. The face and voice of the character that launched a thousand angry white women returns to flesh out the girlboss archetype—with a twist.
Most people love old people. They are considered sweet, or adorably grumpy; they remind us of our grandparents. Our society infantilises them—yet it also neglects them. According to the US National Council on Aging (NCOA), about one in ten Americans aged 60 or older has experienced some type of abuse, known as elder abuse. It is shockingly common and is also unforgivable. I Care A Lot taps into a specific, almost universal vein: the fear that we are neglecting our parents, or our grandparents; the fear that in that neglect they are being abused or exploited; the fear and guilt of them dying alone after everything they did for us. What Marla does, therefore, is repulsive, repulsive and terrifying. The ease with which she sweeps into people’s homes with a court order and locks them up in what is effectively an infantilising prison is unthinkable: we worry that it could happen to us.
Amy Dunne is easier to root for. She accuses, hurts, and kills men who mostly don’t deserve it, but she doesn’t do it out of cold rationality. Most of the time she does it out of righteous fury at a perceived slight: she is a revenger. Marla Grayson is a greedy crook.
It is a refutation of everything Amy Dunne was turned into by so-called feminists who care nothing for intersectionality, nor the rights of anyone but themselves.
Rosamund Pike took on this role deliberately, or else it was written for her. It is a refutation of everything Amy Dunne was turned into by so-called feminists who care nothing for intersectionality, nor the rights of anyone but themselves. As Mull describes it, ‘For the girlboss theory of the universe to cohere, women have to be inherently good and moral creatures, or at least inherently better than men.’ I Care A Lot makes it eminently clear that this is not the case. Marla is a carefully written satire of the girlboss, and she is not empowering; she is evil.
The film weakens its own argument by killing Marla in the end. It’s a deliciously ironic play, that’s true. The son of the unknown woman she trapped in the care home at the beginning shoots her. But this kind of full-circle, get-what’s-coming-to-you idea feels false and overplayed in this, a film that is entirely without revenge. Roman, after all, is perfectly content to become the business partner of the woman who locked up, denied food to, and drugged his mother. (We are even given a shot of Marla looking on graciously as the two are reunited.) Marla goes after Roman following her attempted murder not as revenge for said attempt, either on her life or on that of her girlfriend, but because they will not be safe until Roman has been dealt with. There are no emotional decisions in this film, only financial and practical ones—except for Mr. Feldstrom’s fatal attack.
It comes out of nowhere. It’s meant to be dramatic; it comes off as bathetic. It’s too out of the blue, and it cheapens the conclusion towards which the film has been subtly building throughout. Yes, it’s a reminder that she is a bad person, who has done bad things. But the ending is more effective without that reminder. Let her cold, sickeningly triumphant monologue drag on for just a little too long. Let her successes—personal and financial—ring out clearly. Let us almost, almost succumb to the intoxicating pleasure of her happy ending.
It’s more threatening to think that she and everything she represents is still out there, still revoking freedoms, collecting assets, drugging little old ladies.
But as the screen goes black, we cannot help but remember where she started, and where she continues to go. It’s more threatening to think that she and everything she represents is still out there, still revoking freedoms, collecting assets, drugging little old ladies. This is what capitalism has created. This is what faux-feminism has done.
Blakeson doesn’t give his audience enough credit. Yes, there will probably be those who laud her as a feminist hero. But cruelty to the elderly is—generally speaking—too stomach-curdling to forgive. She is not a hero, whether she dies at the end or not; let the alluring promise of her sparkling diamond ring, sans blood, serve as a reminder:
It could be your grandma next.