I Care a Lot (2021)

The Swampflix Crew were generally big fans of the twisty psychological thriller Unsane a few summers back, but it was very divisive in other circles. The way Soderbergh mined the real-life horrors of involuntary hospitalization & insurance scams at the expense of the mentally ill for cheap-o genre entertainment was a major turn-off for a lot of that film’s audience, understandably so. And now I have to wonder what that crowd would make of the recent Netflix release I Care A Lot, which mines the real-life exploitation of the elderly for something even less respectful: a flippant black comedy. At least Unsane was fully dedicated to making the bureaucratic nightmare at its core as visibly ugly & spiritually repugnant as possible. By contrast, I Care a Lot uses its own exploitative health industry scam as a convenient springboard for a candy-coated slapstick comedy about an overachieving #girlboss with a killer wardrobe. Regardless of that choice’s morality or its likely divisiveness, I have to admit that the clash between film’s pitch-black cruelty & sugary irreverence is exactly what endeared it to me.

Rosamund “Gone Girl” Pike is typecast as a vicious, unrepentant monster with an A-type personality and a blunt Lime Cat bob. As a professional “caretaker” & “guardian,” she “earns” her designer wardrobe & lavish home off the backs of her elderly “clients”, whom she traps in legally-forced conservatorships that park them in prison-like retirement homes while she liquidates their funds on the outside. It’s a scam that should be familiar to the audience by now, both through the 2017 investigative article in The New Yorker that likely inspired the film and, more recently, through the ongoing #FreeBritney scandal that’s effectively made “conservatorship” the dictionary word of the year. Maybe that’s why the movie quickly gets bored with dwelling on the details of the scam, then shifts focus to gawking at the heartless inhumanity of the criminals who profit off it. Pike’s blatantly exploitative business is essentially a legally-sanctioned version of organized crime (as her grift requires behind-closed-doors cooperation from doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies for a share in the profit). So, the movie pits her against a network of actual mobsters, testing the limits of her power-hungry cruelty in a rapidly escalating mob war that highlights the disturbing parallels between both sides. It’s all very silly, while also never losing sight of the real-life bitterness at its center.

I don’t know that this film has anything especially insightful to say about the forced-conservatorship scam in particular or even the evils of late-stage Capitalism at large. It’s more of a movie about the type of person who excels in those corrupt, unjust scenarios. No matter the minute-to-minute distractions of its broadly comedic plot, this is essentially a character study of All-American Capitalist Scum. In a system where the only two viable options are to exploit or be exploited, she’s playing the game exactly the way it’s designed to be played. The fucked-up thing is that it’s genuinely Fun to watch her win that game, even after getting an up-close look at the victims of her cruelty. Watching Pike model designer sunglasses, pull on giant cigar-sized vapes, and rapidly force a sugary-smile as if she were firing a gun is endlessly entertaining, and you can tell she’s gleefully enjoying the role. The movie’s both honest about the luxuries & pleasures of Capitalist power and the toll that level of Success takes on the most vulnerable members of your fellow citizenry. No matter how far it strays away from the real-life health industry exploitations of its first act into the cartoonish mobster war of its main plot, everything you need to know about how fucked up our modern healthcare & economic systems are can be seen in a quick flash of Pike’s sinisterly insincere smile.

I Care a Lot is an icy blast. Its plotting could be tighter, and even I have some serious issues with how it concludes, but neither of those nitpicks are enough to sour the acidic sugar rush that surrounds them. The film is just deeply, deeply mean and looks like pure candy, which is more than enough for me. I can’t promise those guilty pleasures will be enough to win everyone over, but I hope we can at least all get on the same page in praising Pike’s sociopathic ice queen performance. She should be allowed to run wild like this more often; cruelty suits her.

-Brandon Ledet

Black Mass (2015)

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What the hell has Johnny Depp been doing for the last decade? It used to be that every new Depp performance was worth getting excited about, but the last time I can remember being impressed with him was as the notorious reprobate John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester in 2004’s The Libertine. Everything since feels like a formless blur of pirates, Tontos, and CGI chameleons. No matter. Depp has returned to his past life as a solid, exciting actor in another formally middling biopic packed to the gills with great performances, Black Mass. With his receding hairline, hideous teeth, ever-present aviators & pinky rings, and eyes so grey-blue they almost make him look blind, Depp plays the infamous South Boston crimelord Whitey Bulger like a strange cross between Hunter S. Thompson & Nosferatu. It’s a measured, but menacing performance that proves Depp still has it in him to terrify & captivate, completely transforming beyond recognition & losing himself in his best role of the past decade.

The worst accusation that can be thrown at Black Mass is that it’s a little formally & narratively overfamiliar. The film doesn’t bring anything particularly fresh to the 70s-era organized crime drama format, calling to mind works from names like Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, and Martin Scorsese in nearly every scene. In fact, because of the thick Boston accents inherent to Whitey Bulger & The Winter Hill Gang it’s easy to pinpoint a specific point of reference in Scorsese’s oeuvre that Black Mass can be accused of being a little too reminiscent of: The Departed. Just know that if you’re looking forward to this film as a fan of that genre there’s not going to be long stretches of brutal violence & gunfire that usually accompany organized crime films. Black Mass has its moments of brutality, sure, limited mostly to bursts of fist to face sadism & quick bursts of assassination, but for the most part it’s a calm story of political intrigue. The movie is almost entirely focused on the real-life Bulger’s secretive “alliance” with the FBI that allowed the two agencies to work together to eradicate the Italian mafia from Boston, making room for Bulger to bloom from a small time crime boss into an all-powerful kingpin. Black Mass is concerned with the audio surveillance tapes, buried/forged paperwork, and back alley dealings with the federal government that allowed for Bulger’s rise to power much more than it is with his murderous deeds, which amount to exactly one onscreen shooting & two strangling on Depp’s bloody hands. Bulger is terrifying, but the threat he poses is more systemic than it is physical, making for a film that may have defied the more bloodthirsty expectations of its audience. I noticed quite a few viewers at our screening checking their cellphones in the second & third acts . . .

Any muted expectations I had for Black Mass based on its 70s-era crime drama familiarity (an aesthetic that somehow hilariously continues well into the 90s in the film’s timeline) were surpassed merely on the merit of its performances. Besides Depp’s horrifying, career-revitalizing turn as Whitey Bulger, there’s also great, unexpected screen presence from Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott, Dakota Johnson, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Peter Sarsgaard, and, my personal favorite, Julianne Nichlson (who was fantastic in both Boardwalk Empire & Masters of Sex and whom I only want the best things for). This is an actor’s movie. The 70s crime pastiche is merely a backdrop for the absurdly talented cast’s parade of heavy Boston accents & emotional turmoil. The screenplay offers very little in terms of surprise. Of course Bulger is the kind of gangster that is gentle & neighborly with old ladies, but will have a man killed for threatening to punch him in a bar. Of course, despite his official status as a “top echelon informant”, he’s prone to saying things like, “I don’t consider this ratting or informing. This is business.” Of course, because this is a gangster movie, the script is a long procession of a million “fuck”s, one with just a few homophobic & anti-Italian slurs thrown in there for good measure. I consistently got the feeling that we’ve all seen this play out countless times before, but I still enjoyed it a great deal. Just as a particularly corrupt FBI agent justifies his involvement with Bulger as “a little white lie to protect the bigger truth”, Black Mass is a little, unassuming movie worthwhile for how it supports such a massive list of excellent performances, Depp’s return to form, believe it or not, being just one drop in the bucket.

-Brandon Ledet