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5 Screenwriting Takeaways From 'I Care a Lot'

March 12, 2021
4 min read time

From the very beginning, I Care a Lot makes the viewer uncomfortable and puts them on edge. That’s the point, though. It drives the viewer towards wanting to know how everything will play out. If there's one thing the film accomplishes, it’s frightening people into wondering if this could happen to them.

The story is about a crooked legal guardian who uses persuasive powers to put elderly wards under her supervision, only to rob them of their lives, financially and personally. Except this time, her latest victim is more than she bargained for. The twisted thriller, written and directed by J Blakeson, stars Rosamund Pike (who won a Golden Globe® for her performance), Dianne Wiest, and Peter Dinklage.

Here are five takeaways screenwriters looking to take their thriller screenplays to a whole new level can learn from I Care a Lot.

Setting up the world

Minutes into the movie, we get full access to Marla’s (Rosamund Pike) scheme, including how it impacts the children of her victims — she finds legal means to cut them off — and how she manipulates the legal system.

Then, when she preys on her latest victim Jennifer (Dianne Wiest), we get to see her world, exactly how she operates, and what’s at stake should someone mess with her way of life.

Blakeson has created a world that we all think we can wrap our heads around (a nursing home), and turned it upside down through the ease in which someone could take advantage of the elderly or vulnerable.

Find a scary scenario and make it scarier

Along the lines of that set-up which twists what we think we know, one aspect of I Care a Lot that makes it so intriguing and a must-watch is taking a world that would naturally scare most of us — and making it scarier. Everyone is gets old. Whether it’s our grandparents, parents, or eventually us, the possibility of ending up in a nursing home or being deceived by someone seems close.

I Care a Lot takes those stories we see on the news about those we feel sorry for and shows how little control people may have when they are vulnerable and helpless, becoming easy victims. There’s a part of us that fears it could happen to us or a loved one, and Blakeson has masterfully taken that fear and shown how it can.

When we see Jennifer taken from her home, it’s scary. When they're selling off all of her possessions, that’s even scarier. And when she can’t have contact with the outside world and is solely dependant on the woman who took advantage of her, it takes it to another level.

It's useful for a screenwriter to observe how Blakeson uses one character’s courtesy and another’s confusion to create a thrilling series of moments.

Who is the bad guy that takes on the bad guy?

This movie is not about heroes. This movie is not about good people. And there really isn’t much that’s likeable about any of the characters in general.

What the film offers instead, is compelling characters that we’re thirsty to know more about and those we want to go on a journey with, in the same vein as Breaking Bad’s Walter White or The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano.

In a world where the villain is the main character, you need someone who can strike fear into the “bad guy.” By the time we meet Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), we’re eager to meet the person who's going to help poor Jennifer. But Roman is a man who strikes fear in others immediately, commands power, and makes his money as a human trafficker.

Now we have two wicked people going head-to-head, operating in two completely separate ways; one uses perceived kindness and the law, the other uses violence.

Screenwriters can see how important compelling characters are and how two evil people going head-to-head can be stronger than the usual good versus bad. What Blakeson has done is make us want to see someone get their comeuppance so badly, that we don’t care who delivers it.

Have the lead dig their own grave with confidence

Marla executes everything to perfection and she knows how to get her way. Roman wants Jennifer released but in Marla’s opinion, that’s simply not possible. When Roman sends in a lawyer who basically says he can give Marla a way out, she refuses. She’s simply too cocky to think anything bad will happen or that this is anything more than someone trying to out-hustle her.

It was preying on Jennifer that was her first “mistake,” but as the audience, we know who sent the lawyer and we know that Marla is starting to dig her own grave. Sensing something is off with this situation, Marla talks to Jennifer, who tells her captor she’s a dead woman.

Now we want to know how this monster gets slain, if she does at all.

We’ve seen this type of character before — a know-it-all who must fall from grace. Screenwriters can take note of how Marla digs her own grave with a confident smile on her face.

A thriller on many levels

There’s no doubt I Care a Lot is a thriller, but what kind of thriller is it? In some ways, it’s a heist thriller. In others it’s partly a legal thriller, and then it’s a crime thriller.

It all comes down to perspective. For Jennifer, it’s a straight thriller. Someone has come to take everything in her life. But from Roman’s perspective, this is almost a heist film because in essence, he’s trying to find a way to break into a secure location legally without revealing who he is.

The movie plays with multiple genres while still remaining true to its overall thriller status. Too often, writers stick to a single genre, but a story needn’t be tied down to that.

More examples would include North by Northwest and Casablanca, both of which wouldn’t be considered comedies and yet, they both actually have a lot of laugh-out-loud moments. Or Rocky, which is a sports drama with a lot of romantic moments in it. Writers can look beyond the single genre of their story to see how they can build multiple elements in to elevate and surprise.

I Care a Lot is available to stream on Netflix.

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