There are many elderly people in the US who live alone but are not poor. This Netflix film is a dark comedy of the way that some people abuse the guardianship laws in the US to exploit such elderly people out of their life savings. The way it works is that if a doctor certifies that someone is incapable of looking after themselves, a court can declare them to be ‘wards of the court’ and appoint a guardian to look after them and the guardian immediately gains total power over that person’s life, including their finances. The judge gets to decide whether you need a guardian and who gets to be your guardian and everything hinges on that decision. Usually it is a member of the family who petitions the court but it is not necessary and it is not always the case that they are acting in the best interests of the person. Unscrupulous guardians can sell off the ward’s assets to pay for their care and pay themselves a hefty fee and there is little that can be done about it once the process is set in motion.
This film shows the brutality that the conjunction of the medical and legal establishment within a capitalist system that enables such abuses to occur. It shows how in the US people have to be prepared to protect themselves and their elderly loved ones from falling prey to such vultures. You can read of real-life abuses and what can be done to prevent them. The investigative documentary series Dirty Money had one episode that dealt with this issue.
As Dirty Money revealed, in states like Texas, guardians are entitled to earn commissions on sales of their wards’ assets, on top of drawing wages for themselves, assistants, and lawyers. Abuses have been reported for decades; in 2001, the New York Times wrote of one lawyer who served as guardian for senior citizens. He brought a birthday cake to one ward’s nursing home and charged her estate $850 for the visit. On another occasion, he took her to buy an ice cream cone and charged her $1,275.
Journalist Rachel Aviv, who’s featured in the Dirty Money episode, wrote an in-depth examination of guardianship abuse for the New Yorker in 2017. Her story focused on Rudy and Rennie North, a retired Nevada couple who were married for 57 years before professional guardian April Parks arrived at their home in 2013 and forced them to move to an assisted living center. Parks, who’d won control of hundreds of wards over the years, had, without the Norths’ knowledge, filed an emergency petition to become their guardian, convincing a judge with the help of a letter from a physician’s assistant who had a single appointment with Rennie that the couple could no longer responsibly handle their affairs.
After spending just 10 minutes before a judge, Parks became their permanent guardian. She sold off the their belongings and changed their insurance so that they were forced to see new doctors who prescribed them powerful tranquilizers and painkillers. But after the Norths’ daughter turned to local journalists, who invested abuses in the guardianship system, Parks’ guardianship of the couple fell under scrutiny and they were removed from her care.
In this film, Rosamund Pike plays Marla Grayson (who could have been modeled on Parks because what she does is exactly as described) as someone who exploits the system by having a doctor accomplice identify old people who are rich and live alone and declare them to be incompetent, and gets a family court judge, who does not seem to bother to look too closely into each case, to appoint her as a guardian. She has a huge number of wards under her care from whose assets she siphons off hefty fees, enabling her to become very wealthy. Nursing homes are also accomplices in her schemes.
The film centers on an elderly woman (played by Diane Wiest) who is brought to Grayson’s attention by the doctor as a ‘cherry’, meaning a prime target for exploitation. Wiest lives alone and has no family but has a lot of money saved. Grayson moves in and takes over but unknown to her, her victim, far from being a helpless single person, has a secret past that complicates matters greatly, as a gangster played by Peter Dinklage has links to her and becomes Grayson’s nemesis.
I really liked the first three quarters of the film that showed how the system can be exploited but then it went a little bonkers and there were scenes of over-acting and speechifying and became a highly absurd action film, with over-the-top sequences that I felt were a bit much. This is the problem with films that are described as ‘dark comedies’ as this one is. The delicate balance between comedy and darkness is difficult to maintain. If it gets a little too dark, as happened here towards the end, the comedic aspect gets lost and it becomes a straight up thriller but with a fantastical plot that takes away from its major message of how the guardianship system can be and is abused.
Here’s the trailer.
The lesson is that if you are an elderly person or have a loved one who is elderly, you should watch out for the appearance of unscrupulous characters.