In two entirely unrelated ways, I Care a Lot perfectly showcases two of the foremost aesthetic limitations facing contemporary cinema. The simpler one to talk about is that it's just really damn gross-looking, with the kind of chintzy digital cinematography that has come to define so many direct-to-streaming films (it has been divvied up between Netflix and Amazon in most of the world). It's so crisp that even the soft focus feels unpleasantly sharp (and there's a whole lot of shallow focus in I Care a Lot), the colors all have a kind of unpleasant bacterial quality, and it's all overlit.

The more complicated one is that this is a pretty fine example of the tonal flattening that happens when film storytelling gets too hung up on sand-off-all-the-edges, Save the Cat-style screenwriting that is obsessed with giving the audience what they claim to want rather than what they need. I Care a Lot is a film about unspeakably vicious, sociopathic people; there's literally not a single named character who is likable in any significant respect. The bulk of the film is about these horrible monsters engaged in a battle of wits to see who can get the upper hand over the other through any dirty means possible, and so much the better if it involves violence. All of which, to be clear, is pretty great.

And greater still since the cast bringing these people to life is so great at their jobs. Rosamund Pike, no stranger to playing amoral vipers (she's channeling her Gone Girl performance and improving upon it; she's not straining nearly as much against her American accent this time), is Marla Grayson, a woman who has made a pretty comfortable living for herself by manipulating the legal system to put herself in power over well-to-do senior citizens, cutting their family members out of the equation as she becomes their legal guardian. From this position, she uses corrupt nursing home administrators to keep her charges harmlessly doped up while she pays her own shell company handsome sums of money. The latest of these is a certain Jennifer Peterson (Dianne Wiest), who is perfectly fine on her own, but with hardly any effort, Marla is able to take over her life and then completely destroy it - in the process discovering that Jennifer had an improbably large cache of precious gems hiding in a safe deposit box. And this, we discover soon thereafter, is because Jennifer had a secret connection to a Russian gangster named Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage), whom the world at large has imagined to be dead these last couple of years. And he's not afraid to use all the powers at the disposal of a Russian mobster who has successfully faked his own death to make Marla's life unendurable agony.

For a good 75 minutes, this works: sometimes extraordinarily well, sometimes merely as a solid diversion. Though with two warhorses like Pike and Dinklage giving everything they've got, even as a solid diversion, I Care a Lot is an awful lot of fun, and that's to say nothing of the rest of the cast: Wiest of course, but also Eiza González as Fran, Marla's somewhat less venomous business and life partner, Nicholas Logan as a twitchy gangster, Alicia Witt as a venal doctor, and especially Chris Messina bringing wolf-like hunger to the role of a menacing mob lawyer. There's not a single weak link in its cast, with writer-director J Blakeson getting everyone lined up and facing in the same direction of mild camp, leading to a slightly arch, not-exactly-funny tone that lasts for most of the first hour. The film's pleasures lie in watching selfish geniuses manipulate systems and situations entirely for the sake of accruing power over other humans; it's disreputable and ugly and has a nice, sharp bite to it. There are some vague gestures towards social satire in all of this, with the suggestion that this is what happens when people are dropped into a world that knows only economic exploitation and reduces all people to their status as objects to be commodified, though this isn't something it pursues very seriously (even less is it a serious condemnation of the shameful way that the medical profession turns senior patients into faceless cogs in a financial machine); it seems at best to be the cover for the film to be able to do the fun work of indulging in pure wickedness for the sake of it.

That starts to point us in the direction of the problem. We are living through a period where movies are required to be "nice", "relatable", "admirable", and there comes a point - again, right about 75 minutes in - where I Care a Lot very visibly loses its nerve. It decides, quite out of nowhere, that it doesn't just want Marla to be a revolting gargoyle who takes mustache-twirling evil joy in sucking the life and money out of harmless old people, it wants her to be an anti-hero, which isn't precisely the same thing as the villain from whose perspective we watch long passages of the movie. It needs us to at least somewhat root for her and get where she's coming from, and even this isn't quite enough for Blakeson: he also tries to nudge her in the direction of being sympathetic, in tiny little ways. This cannot work, of course; there's no un-shooting the bullet of how mercilessly she abuses helpless old people and the raw joy she takes in doing so, especially when one of those old people is as inherently likable as Dianne Wiest. And so the film starts flailing about in search of a tone it can pursue for more than a few minutes.

This isn't just a failure of the film's second half, to be fair. Almost as soon as it gets started, I Care a Lot is biting off more than it can chew: a dark comedy about a conwoman exploiting loopholes in the legal system turns into a mystery that turns into a gangster thriller, and that's only getting us to that 75-minute mark. The film completely loses track of Wiest, and obliges Pike to reinvent her character so many times that even though she's doing exactly what it requires of her at every turn, she's completely at a loss to make a consistent character out of all the different tonal, narrative, and thematic impulses the film demands of her (a monstrous sociopath, a badass girlboss, a satiric indictment of badass girlbosses, a breezy caper film con artist). It's a busy mess of a film, and as long as it maintains a core of dark, sarcastic energy, it's able to keep all of that patched together. But it eventually drops the sarcasm and just holds onto the darkness, and the patch ceases to hold; and that's not even touching the inordinately contrived bullshit of the last ten minutes. It's odd to say of a film that's such nasty fun for such a large amount of its running time that it's a failure, but I Care a Lot collapses in so many ways in its last act that the whole experience is retroactively tainted by it.