Aubrey Plaza shines in John Patton Ford’s debut crime thriller
Dir/scr: John Patton Ford. US. 2022. 96 mins.
A thriller consistently pushed into darker, more intriguing terrain by Aubrey Plaza’s electric performance, Emily The Criminal tells the story of a financially strapped woman who decides that a life of crime is her only escape from crippling debt — if she can make it out alive. Writer-director John Patton Ford’s feature debut starts off as a character study but soon ratchets up the tension, never losing its focus on the individuals at the centre of a credit-card scam that will inevitably, but compellingly, go pear-shaped. The narrative may have familiar contours, but Ford’s close attention to the have-nots’ desire to transcend their circumstances gives the proceedings a gripping emotional undercurrent.
A gripping emotional undercurrent
This Sundance premiere seems a safe bet for arthouse distribution thanks to both its marketable hook and Plaza’s indie cachet. (She also serves as a producer.) Strong reviews should only further raise Emily’s profile.
Set in Los Angeles, the picture stars Plaza as Emily, an aspiring painter who is saddled with about $70,000 in student loans — not to mention a criminal record. (We don’t know the details, but apparently it’s an assault conviction, which is just about the only bit of backstory we are given.) Stuck in a dead-end catering job — and disappointed that her longtime best friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) can’t get her an interview at her prestigious ad agency — Emily receives a tip about being a “dummy shopper”, which pays $200 for one hour of work.
Emily quickly realises why the gig is so lucrative — it’s illegal, using stolen credit card numbers to purchase high-end items like flatscreen televisions. But she desperately needs the money, discovering she has a knack for the job. Soon, Emily becomes the close confidante of her boss, a Middle Eastern immigrant named Youcef (Theo Rossi), who takes her on as a partner, showing her the whole operation and promising her even greater riches.
Ford, whose 2010 short Patrol debuted at Sundance, grounds this intimate crime drama in specific details, only slowly revealing who his protagonist is. Plaza has often played eccentric, slightly edgy characters, but in Emily The Criminal there’s a weary prickliness to Emily born from her frustration that life hasn’t turned out the way she wanted. The film’s title is never spoken aloud, but one senses that, because of her past, the derogatory moniker is how the world sees her — and, in some ways, how she’s come to see herself. What’s so enticing about Emily The Criminal is watching Emily at last embrace the strange freedom that her criminal record has bestowed upon her. After all, if she’s considered morally suspect already, why not keep going?
Plaza demonstrates her character’s resourcefulness marvellously, quickly responding to dangerous situations that arise. At first, Emily is just buying items with bad credit cards, but later she’s selling the ill-gotten merchandise to shady individuals, discovering the importance of carrying a taser and finding out the hard way what to do if someone gets the drop on her. While it wouldn’t be accurate to call Emily The Criminal a self-empowerment saga — Emily was poised before the picture began — the character gets a rush from her illicit activities, finally able to feel valued in the same way as Liz, who has no idea what her friend has gotten herself into. Emily wants to pay off her debts, but Ford and Plaza sneakily suggest that her reason for staying is a matter of self-esteem, too.
Perhaps that’s why Emily finds herself drawn to the charming Youcef, who has a flirty rapport with his newest employee. Like Emily, he’s dreaming of something grander for himself, and Rossi nicely balances the character’s swagger and insecurity. The two actors have such intense chemistry that Emily and Youcef’s working relationship seems destined to spill over into something romantic, leading to complications when other members of his family don’t take too kindly to her encroaching into the inner circle of their business.
Just when Emily’s underworld activities become especially nerve-racking, she suddenly lands an opportunity to go legit with an exciting job possibility, and Plaza conveys the character’s conflicted emotions. Emily has become accustomed to the considerable money she gets from this illegal enterprise, but how long until she’s caught? Plaza doesn’t signal which way Emily is leaning, resulting in a final stretch that might be surprising — except for the fact that it echoes the steeliness she’s shown from the film’s very start. Even if Emily The Criminal’s denouement is perhaps a little too tidily ironic, it doesn’t diminish Plaza’s daring turn. If you keep pushing someone, eventually she’ll push back — one surmises Emily’s counterpunch has been a long time coming.
Production companies: Evil Hag, Low Spark Films
Producers: Tyler Davidson, Aubrey Plaza, Drew Sykes
Production design: Liz Toonkel
Editing: Harrison Atkins
Cinematography: Jeff Bierman
Music: Nathan Halpern
Main cast: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Gina Gershon