Aubrey Plaza commands the screen in John Patton Ford’s taut thriller/character study Emily the Criminal, which explores the idea of finding empowerment in operating outside the law. Plaza has always been a charismatic performer, whether she’s angling for laughs or going for menace by leaning into her innate intensity, and she turns the story of a frustrated woman who discovers a talent for credit card fraud into a gripping viewing experience.
Emily was an art student, but a felony conviction on her record means getting any job is tough, much less one in her favored field. She works in catering and food delivery to try to pay the bills, but no matter how many shifts she takes on, she can barely put a dent in her massive student loan debt. A co-worker offers to connect her with an opportunity that promises $200 for an hour’s work, and she finds herself involved in a fraudulent shopping scheme masterminded by Youcef (Theo Rossi). The money — and the adrenaline — prove impossible to pass up, and soon she’s all-in.
As the jobs get bigger and the stakes get higher, Emily takes more risks — and ends up on the wrong side of some pretty dangerous people as a result. But the power she feels when she pulls off a scam or asserts her will on someone else is heady, and she’s not inclined to let anyone take advantage of her or her situation again. Her choices may be illegal, but she’s also fed up with being expected to take others’ scraps and be grateful for them.
The story maintains a keen tension throughout, and Plaza completely sells the character, making Emily’s transformation from frazzled underdog into confident criminal totally believable. And writer/director John Patton Ford does a great job directing her, helping her use her determined jaw, steely gaze, and often sardonic smile to convey a wide range of feelings. Whether we approve of or understand her choices or not, it’s never in doubt that Emily is a woman who’s coming into her own. – Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Loren King Even admirers of the always solid work from Aubrey Plaza over the years will be stunned by her riveting, nuanced performance in this taut thriller/character study about a young woman who, for complicated reasons, is trapped by her circumstances and turns to a life of crime. That’s the power of both John Patton Ford’s razor sharp debut and Plaza’s coiled but controlled performance. Read full review.
Nell Minow: Aubrey Plaza is known for understatement. But in Emily the Criminal she shows just how much thought and emotion can be conveyed by an actor famous for her iconic deadpan. All of the fear, frustration, anger, and desperation Emily feels is in Plaza’s eyes as Emily in the life she once envisioned for herself (the life her college friend is now leading) slips out of her grasp. And so, she has to hold onto something else. We see how each choice leads inexorably to the next, Emily’s eyes getting colder with each one.
Sherin Nicole Aubrey Plaza bears the weight of inescapable debt and crushed hopes in Emily the Criminal, and she flexes on it. As one desperate decision breeds another and multiples, we watch Plaza’s Emily spiral into criminality. Many will call this a thriller, but it is more aptly a ‘crime trauma.’ Both trouble and bad men come at Emily with equal intensity and somehow, like a boxer, she dances away with only cuts and bruises—until she can’t anymore. When the bell rings after each round, we are left as beaten as she is but still clinging to hope.
Pam Grady: At the beginning of this taut thriller, Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is looking into the abyss and the abyss is laughing back at her. She’s mired in student loan debt and with an assault conviction on her record, she has all but given up on the idea of finding a good job. A prisoner of the gig economy that has reduced her to little more than a human hamster doomed to endlessly running on a wheel, she never even considers the implications when a co-worker recruits her into a fraud ring. She just jumps at the opportunity. The scam seems easy enough, despite the perils, but the deeper into the con she gets, the greater the danger. She risks not only jail and another blot on her record but also her physical safety. Plaza, so good in the series Parks and Recreation and in movies like Safety Not Guaranteed and Ingrid Goes West, adds to her gallery of memorable characters as she sinks deep under the skin of this determined young woman. First-time feature writer/director John Patton Ford delivers a tense drama that perfectly reflects our era of late-stage capitalism and the slim and sometimes desperate options available to those caught in its ruthless vise.
Susan Wloszczyna: A ballsy Aubrey Plaza plays it cool in the title role of first-time feature director and writer John Patton Ford’s Emily the Criminal. Like many a millennial, she finds herself choked with a load of student debt while sharing an apartment with not-so-friendly roommates. Not helping matters is a minor criminal infraction from her past that makes her undesirable as an employee. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin Emily the Criminal is a femme-centric caper in which Aubrey Plaza stars as Emily, a gal who is desperate and determined to overcome oppressive debt and the other shitty circumstances of her life. She jumps on the opportunity to make some quick cash by illegal means and what might have been a one-shot money grab becomes an almost addictive assertion of self-confident independence. As she dives deeper into criminality, she encounters some ruthlessly rough and vicious characters who threaten her and invade her scheme — and keep the film’s story exciting. Plaza does a great job of playing the female protagonist who won’t succumb to male bullies. Her do or die battle is a thriller.
Leslie Combemale The intense mix of schadenfreude, compassion, and judgment that viewers will feel while watching Emily the Criminal is probably exactly what writer/director John Patton Ford had in mind. Do we love her, hate her, feel like her, or feel sorry for her? At different moments in the film, you might feel any or all of that, and Aubrey Plaza really brings the character to life in a way that demands we see this anti-heroine in as multi-dimensional character. Emily might be in the hole, but she’s not going to be bullied while she’s there. A lot about this story, too, will resonate for those paying attention to the post-pandemic American economy, as if to remind us many are just a bad choice away from where Emily lands.
Liz Whittemore Emily finds herself trapped in a cycle of crippling poverty. With a felony assault on her record, she endures never-ending judgment from the outside world. When she becomes entangled in a small criminal empire, a combination of desperation and the thrill of the con becomes her relentless motivation. Nuanced morality sets writer-director John Patton Ford’s screenplay apart. The grey area compels you to root for Emily. Theo Rossi plays Emily’s partner-in-crime, Youcef, with genuinely grounded intentions. His arc is surprising, but Rossi’s ability to bring you on an emotional journey is not. The entire film hinges on the spectacular performance of Aubrey Plaza. Her willingness to try anything makes her an unstoppable force in the industry. With projects like Black Bear and Ingrid Goes West under her belt, Emily The Criminal is another successful film on her expansive genre resume. Plaza owns every second of screentime. A taut thriller about temptation and control, Emily The Criminal keeps you in its clutches from beginning to end.
Cate Marquis In Emily The Criminal, Aubrey Plaza stars as a young woman with artistic talent and a pile of student loan debt who is struggling to make a living. Emily (Plaza) is hard-working but has a conviction for assault, on an old boyfriend, that haunts her and leaves her with only low paid jobs and gig work. Offered a chance to make some cash, she takes what she thinks is a one-time opportunity, although it is illegal. Yet doing so opens a door to a new side of Emily, as she finds a surprising sense of power, in this mix of thriller and dark social commentary.
Title: Emily the Criminal
Director: John Patton Ford
Release Date: August 12, 2022
Running Time: 93 minutes
Screenwriter: John Patton Ford
Distribution Company: Roadside Attractions
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin