Synopsis – 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.
My Take – Given the times we are living in, where wealth inequality is at its worse, as the rich are only getting richer and the wages aren’t keeping up with inflation, it has become easy to root for someone we deem as an anti-hero. Someone who decides to stand up to his/her circumstances, but then gets too deep into their ambitions and just ends up flying too close to the sun.
And while this might sound like a story we may have seen many times before, here, debutante writer-director John Patton Ford manages to bring a fresh perspective that is not just solid and impressive, but also true to life, bleak, gripping, suspenseful and dramatic. It also helps that he has a terrific Aubrey Plaza in the leading role.
Serving also as a producer, the film is just the latest in her line of projects where she’s proven that her abilities as an actor go far beyond her obvious comedic chops and sarcasm. While the film is no doubt well-written and excellently paced, it is Plaza‘s excellent performance that makes it hit the chord, turning her character of a debt-ridden every woman feel both sympathetic and fearsome at the same time.
The story follows Emily (Aubrey Plaza), a struggling gig worker who finds herself permanently underemployed. She has the beginning of a design degree, but had to leave due to a felony aggravated assault charge, and found herself with no job prospects and a debt of $70,000. Now, she works part time for a food delivery service, but every attempt to find a better job collides with her criminal record. However, Emily’s life takes a drastic turn when a co-worker in exchange for taking on an extra shift in an emergency hooks her up with an opportunity to make $200 in one hour.
An opportunity which introduces her to Youcef (Theo Rossi), who runs a dummy shopper operation of getting people to buy goods with fraudulent credit cards which he then sells on the black market. While Emily initially gets up to leave, but as desperate times call for desperate measures, she soon finds herself diving further into the world of credit card fraud.
The film very obviously comments on the economic hardships of our times, but uses it as a backdrop to tell a very typical crime story with a fascinating twist. It is mostly straightforward as its title, a punchy, pared-down little thriller about a woman rising in confidence as she falls deeper into a criminal underworld.
There are some fantastically charged moments of suspense like the one where Emily tries to buy a car from a shady vendor and drive away before the bank is called, a genuinely jolting confrontation with a double-crossing client, proving how director Ford has a knack for making us sweat without relying on an over-egged score or over-stacked stakes. It’s a genre film with its feet firmly on the ground, small in scale and tight in focus.
And between Plaza‘s ability to communicate Emily’s mindset and Ford‘s gripping direction, the film maintains an energy that makes it incredibly engaging. Yes, there’s a series of escalating incidents in the film suggesting that Emily is more dangerous than she may initially seem, and the film might quietly shifts from a story about an innocent person’s corruption to a portrait of a possible psychopath, but thankfully it never does. However, what makes this story different than most rise and fall character arcs is that when Emily makes an unforgivable choice, we empathize with her decision.
Her decisions seem reasonable and relatable. She might have a hardened spirit but her moral compass shifts for motives that feel necessary. Even with her new source of income, she doesn’t take anything for granted and never stops working every angle. She keeps trying to land an interview at an upscale ad agency, where interns are expected to work full-time for free. She keeps her food delivery job, even though the pay is lousy and the benefits nonexistent.
But most importantly, it’s not difficult to see why she is easily seduced from food-delivery work to credit card scamming given the $70K in school loans, half a degree, and her permanent record of aggravated assault and DUI. The clarity and tension with which director Ford unfolds Emily’s arc is no doubt admirable.
Of course, it helps that it has Aubrey Plaza in the lead. In one of her more straightforward dramatic performances, absent of her usual deadpan-comic touches, Plaza is a revelation. For an actress who began in comedy, the film push her dramatic chops into the world of crime, further expanding her repertoire and becoming a multi-talented actress who is exciting to watch. Theo Rossi plays a familiar role, but adds a fantastic presence to the proceedings with his relatable back story.
In smaller roles, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Jonathan Avigdori, Bernardo Badillo and Gina Gershon are effective. On the whole, ‘Emily the Criminal’ is a taut thriller that is throughout compelling, engaging, and well-acted.
Directed – John Patton Ford
Rated – R
Run Time – 97 minutes