Emily the Criminal, 2022.
Written and directed by John Patton Ford.
Starring Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Gina Gershon.
Down on her luck and saddled with debt, Emily gets involved in a credit card scam that pulls her into the criminal underworld of Los Angeles, ultimately leading to deadly consequences.
12 years after his short film Patrol debuted at Sundance, writer-director John Patton Ford returned to the festival this year with his first feature. Backed by an enticingly against-type Aubrey Plaza, Emily the Criminal is an acidic takedown of cancerous capitalism and the economic deck that’s stacked so thoroughly against younger generations in particular.
Cash-strapped artist Emily (Plaza) works a menial food delivery gig while trying to secure herself a more fruitful job, yet due to her criminal record for assault, most well-paying employers won’t give her a second look.
And so, with $70,000 in student debt and an inability to pay off even the mounting interest, Emily desperately accepts a one-off gig as a “dummy shopper,” using a cloned credit card to purchase a TV for the guy running the job, Youcef (Theo Rossi). Youcef then promises Emily better-paying work to come, yet with greater reward also comes much greater risk.
Right from its deliciously intense opening scene, where Emily flips out at a potential employer sneakily inquiring about her criminal history, it’s clear that Ford’s film has a deep well of compassion for younger folk trying to keep their heads above water amid increasingly volatile financial conditions – especially in the U.S. When even people with clean rap sheets can’t lock down good, honest work, what chance does someone like Emily have?
On top of that, there’s the matter of dignity. Emily’s opening job interview is framed as though her possible new employer would be doing her a favour, and that in considering her for the job is owed access to her wider life story. This isn’t the only time in the film that this happens to Emily, or where an interviewer scoffs at her for having a basic expectation of respect in the workplace.
Though there’s a clear thread of escalation building throughout, Ford’s film is a mostly unassuming neo-noir that ramps up from low stakes theft to more involved robbery which could bring physical harm. There’s always an amusing matter-of-factness about the way in which Youcef presents Emily’s missions – or, er, jobs – and even as he progressively teaches her how to go into business for herself, it seems so casual, banal, and un-sexy; Ocean’s Eleven this ain’t.
But Ford certainly switches up the tone on occasion, introducing riskier excursions which produce genuine anxious tension, typically before swinging back around for some levity. Though relatively low on big laughs – bar an hilariously abrupt cut to Emily bumping lines of coke – Ford’s stinging satire of modern economic straits obliterates its marks. Another job interview goes spectacularly wrong when her potential boss (Gina Gershon) painfully illustrates the generational divide between them, resulting in Emily exploding into a brilliantly satisfying tirade.
Ford captures the allure of crime as an escape from the drudgery of grunt work, and also from a system where the goalposts have been shifted since prior generations. In a gig economy where food delivery workers are “independent contractors,” and unpaid internships are seen as a kindness to be grateful for, credit card fraud to manifest one’s financial independence makes a twisted sort of sense not merely financially but spiritually also.
Yet for many the primary appeal of Emily the Criminal will be the latest of several recent opportunities to see Aubrey Plaza enter new acting territory, following up her recent career-redefining work in the terrific Black Bear. Similarly, this is a more measured performance from the actress, rich in nuance and restraint yet switching the sarcasm out for a New Jersey accent and greater sense of vulnerability. As Emily’s enterprise grows she transforms into a more self-actualised character, yet one still fraught with believable weaknesses and anxieties.
Plaza is well-matched by Theo Rossi as her partner-in-crime and ultimately romantic interest Youcef. While it’d be easy to paint a character like him in broad strokes, the more we learn about him it’s clear that he’s an ambitious go-getter determined to avoid being pounded by the fist of capitalism. Rossi’s chemistry with Plaza proves strangely sweet, and so it’s easy to root for the pair no matter the illicit nature and dangerous potential of their acts.
This is a remarkably confident feature debut that makes just a few missteps in the writing; a couple of excessively contrived moments to get characters where they need to be, and an ending that’s a tad too cute in its wink-wink circuitousness. But these quibbles can’t do anything to undermine either the trenchant social commentary or effectiveness of the performances on offer.
Emily the Criminal is a refreshingly low-key, scrappy crime caper that thumbs its nose at late-stage capitalism and the American Dream, hammered home by top-notch work from Aubrey Plaza and Theo Rossi. Hopefully it’s not another 12 years before we see Ford behind the camera again.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.