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A sulphur-whiff of evil rises from this exquisitely nasty and horribly watchable thriller from writer-director J Blakeson, whose debut movie The Disappearance of Alice Creed 12 years ago gave us all grounds for predicting great things. And Rosamund Pike is tremendous, giving us her most outrageous Hitchcock-blonde turn since Gone Girl.
Pike offers a window display of pure predatory wickedness, lighting up the screen with her sociopath haircut, shades and fashion-plate outfits, like Nurse Ratched’s aspirational granddaughter. She is also vaping – always the sign of a screen villain. Although I can’t help wishing Blakeson could have given Pike’s co-star Dianne Wiest more to do in the final act, it is grisly and gleefully cynical entertainment. If Ben Jonson directed films, they would be like this.
Pike plays Marla Grayson, a ruthless woman who, with her assistant-lover Fran (Eiza González), is exploiting a goldmine of neglect. Elder abuse and the fear of dementia are growth industries, and this movie hits on the most painful subject of all: not being able to see your mum or dad in a care home. Marla bribes doctors to give phoney dementia diagnoses for well-off elderly patients with no family members in the picture. The doctor applies for an emergency court order to have this now terrified old person placed under the tender care of Marla, as a state-appointed guardian with discretionary charge of that person’s finances. While the aged victim is sedated and imprisoned in a care home, with no visitors allowed, Marla is entitled to drain their bank account and sell their assets to pay the inflated bills charged by the care home in which she owns shares – and she also takes a handsome fee. One day, Marla lands what she thinks is a juicy, tame fish: wealthy Mrs Peterson, marvellously played by Wiest. But Marla doesn’t realise Mrs Peterson has connections with a vindictive Russian mafioso, played by Peter Dinklage.
If the Coen brothers were shooting this, they would maybe dial up the bizarre black humour, though at the cost of losing out on the very real chill of cruelty. Steven Soderbergh might well have filmed it too; it’s not a million miles away from movies such as 2013’s Side Effects or Unsane from 2018, though again he might have taken a breezier line with the film’s unspeakably horrible high concept. Blakeson plays it very straight – until the end, when an element of melodrama creeps in. It pays off in showing us Marla’s black parasitical heart.
When Marla turns up at Mrs Peterson’s door, all kindly, sorrowing smiles and with her court order ready to produce at the exact psychological moment, it really is ordeal cinema. We have to sit through this horror, in real time, as Mrs Peterson is at first baffled, then amused, then indignant, then frightened and bewildered, as Marla blandly shows her the paperwork and then gestures at the cops who are waiting in case she doesn’t come quietly to the care home. There is something all too plausible about poor Mrs Peterson’s grimly trusting belief that if she submits to being locked up now, this whole mistake can be rectified later. We can all imagine that happening to our mum or dad, or ourselves, in the future. It’s impossible to watch this scene without a spasm of anger, an outrage-detonation which powers the movie through almost its entire running time.
Blakeson and Pike make Marla someone whose clenched, tense, ice-queen mannerisms have evolved through having to face down men who are as evil or more so than her, but less clever. Uncaring is her superpower.
• Released on 19 February on Amazon Prime Video.
Source: The Guardian
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