Emily the Criminal

It’s odd to perceive the high stakes drama Emily the Criminal as a game-changer for star/producer Aubrey Plaza, but it absolutely is. Her role in John Patton Ford’s feature-length filmmaking debut requires the actor to channel her deadpan demeanour towards a more serious direction that details her character’s desperation, exhaustion and, later, her vindictive desires – it’s an incredible performance in an exciting dramatic thriller.

Plaza plays the titular Emily, a service worker who is hampered by an imperfect past with the law and struggling to make ends meet financially. She’s given a tip by a co-worker to inquire about work that could earn Emily some quick cash. A meeting is arranged and a shady businessman, Youcef (Theo Rossi) explains the plan for how Emily (and a team of other recruits) can make big money: purchase a big ticket item with a bogus credit card. After testing the waters, Emily is assured that if she’s called upon again, the payday could increase. But with more money on the line, the danger of the task escalates. Emily’s steadfast curiousity turns into loyalty and her integrity starts to buckle under the weight of Youcef’s work ethic and lucrative lifestyle.

Emily the Criminal has been made with equal parts empathy and cynicism for the current workplace scope. Writer/director Ford supports the concerns and frustrations of blue-collar workers but, also, doesn’t endorse illicit hustling as a resolution for misunderstood workers. The film carefully rides the line between two emotional extremes, sometimes using a contrasting visual cue to make its point. My favourite visual was a brief scene featuring someone narrowly escaping death after a robbery, only to pass by a “now hiring” window posting at a Starbucks in their shell-shocked state. Hints like these never pull the viewer away from the movie’s tension or have them abandoning their own nerve-wracked feelings towards a descent into corruption. But, they do ask us to reflect on the decisions made by people who feel like they’re drowning in debt with no end in sight. 

Much like how 2014’s Nightcrawler set up a morality tale of how far people will go to achieve their own sense of greatness, Emily the Criminal effectively questions how far people will go to achieve a reassuring sense of living.


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