You are a very negative impact on me. The strength of “Emily the Criminal,” which was written and directed by John Patton Ford and stars Aubrey Plaza, is demonstrated by who delivers this sentence, why they deliver it, and when they deliver it.
Although “Emily the Criminal” is more basic in its aesthetic, the picture plays like a bat out of hell and is full of adrenaline, comparable to the Safdie brothers’ recent film “Good Time.”
However, “Emily the Criminal” does not feature as many bells and whistles as “Good Time.” The perspective of the film on the so-called “country of opportunity” is as pessimistic as it is possible to get. This is John Patton Ford’s first time directing a film, and it is a really outstanding piece of work for him to start with.
Emily is a unique person, but she is also illustrative of the challenges that are unique to her generation. She attended a prestigious art school, earning a degree in portraiture while also graduating with a substantial amount of student loan debt. It is completely inconceivable that she will ever be able to repay either the main or the interest on the debt. Emily is the owner of a record.
In college, there was a case of driving under the influence. Additionally, an individual was taken into custody for assault. Because of this, she will not be able to pass a background check, which will be an obstacle for her when she applies for “real” jobs. She is an independent contractor for a company similar to GrubHub (they can cut her hours with no warning and she has no recourse).
She lugs pans of lasagna into immaculate corporate offices, where women in smart suits mill about in anticipation of her completion. She is given the opportunity to participate in an interesting internship; however, the internship is unpaid. It is impossible for her to go without compensation for the next five months. Who is able? Emily is unable to escape. That is, up to the point where one of her coworkers educated her about the world of credit card theft.
Youcef, played by Theo Rossi, gathers a group of people in a warehouse and guides them through the procedure. He warns them right off the bat that what they are about to do is unlawful (but safe), and that they are free to leave at any time if they don’t feel comfortable with what they are doing.
His demeanor is unassuming and charitable, and it is easy to put one’s faith in him. Emily is provided with a false driver’s license as well as a phony credit card and given instructions on what to buy in order to resell on the black market. Youcef provides Emily with a taser for protection and a burner phone at a later point when Emily has more of a grasp on the situation. He walks her through the process of creating the credit cards.
This “sits well” with her. The money has a highly addicting quality. The idea of being free of financial obligations is an extremely powerful incentive. Emily’s buddy from art school, Liz, played by Megalyn Echikunwoke, keeps dangling the idea of recommending Emily for a job as a graphic designer at her ad business.
This highlights the wide disparity in circumstances that exist between the two friends. (When Liz was informed that she would be traveling to Portugal for work, she expressed her displeasure to Emily by saying, “It’s just for 11 days.” Only!)
Emily’s true nature is revealed as the occupations become progressively more dangerous, bringing to mind the beginning of the film in which she tries to salvage a failed job interview by turning it on its head. She never takes the defensive position. She immediately takes the offensive position whenever possible. She has quick reflexes and good judgment.
When she makes up her mind to fight back, she is capable of being extremely terrifying. She has a thing for Youcef, who is an immigrant from Lebanon who has goals and aspirations for the future. Youcef has feelings for her as well.
The credit card fraud portion of “Emily the Criminal” is fascinating, providing a deep dive into the world of “dummy shopping.” However, what sparks the picture overall is Aubrey Plaza’s unpredictable and frequently thrilling portrayal of Emily.
Plaza “grew up” through the comedy scene, which validates a point that I once made in an article for Film Comment about the dramatic skills of performers who are mostly recognized for comedic roles (people like Barbara Harris, Catherine O’Hara, and Madeline Kahn). There are no guarantees with Plaza. She takes risks.
Her delivery of lines with a deadpan expression can be entertaining at times, but it can also be unnerving. She changes it depending on the circumstances of the story. Her performances in “Ingrid Goes West” and “Black Bear” demonstrate her openness to playing “unlikeable” or at the very least “difficult” characters, as well as her willingness to venture into some very murky waters. Her performances also demonstrate her willingness to travel in some very dark waters.
Plaza, much like Kristen Wiig, has successfully carved out her own niche in the entertainment industry in which to work. It does not appear that she is as constrained by the requirements of the industry as other, more mainstream actresses are. She is confident enough in her abilities to produce a project such as “Emily the Criminal,” devoting herself to a director who is making their debut.
This reveals not only how much she believes in the project, but also the kinds of roles that most excite her as an actress. This is not material that is intended to win favor, and she is not doing so in this passage.
It’s not often that women get to portray the roles of anti-heroes. This is the terrain that was explored by filmmakers in the 1970s, with all of those wonderful films delving into the murky underbelly of the crumbling American ideal. Emily is not a character that you immediately get along with, but she is a character whose success you can’t help but want to see.
The fact that Plaza and Rossi have actual chemistry together is what made it feasible for them to build the intriguing relationship that exists between Youcef and Emily. In another universe and era, “Emily the Criminal” would have been a romantic drama along the lines of Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone.” Such a story would have included elements of romance, criminality, social stratification, and moral or ethical conundrums.
However, the events of “Emily the Criminal” take place in a moment that is both too urgent and too gloomy. Things are not looking good. They say that the system is rigged, and I believe them. Emily does not waste time worrying about ethical dilemmas. As an expression of her hatred, she screams, “Motherf**kers will keep taking from you until you create the goddamn rules yourselves.” She is glistening with fury. She does not speak without meaning.