Emily the Criminal: Aubrey Plaza excels in this well-drawn nail-biter

Making strong use of Aubrey Plaza’s penchant for menace, John Patton Ford’s solid debut feature contains some excellent high-tension sequences, executed more effectively than the film’s social critique and romantic elements.

10 October 2022

By Jason Anderson

Aubrey Plaza as Emily in Emily the Criminal (2022)
Sight and Sound

“You can’t make money another way?” asks the man who has introduced Emily the Criminal’s titular heroine to a shadier way of making a living on the mean streets of L.A. Demonstrating the steelier edge that serves her well throughout John Patton Ford’s admirable debut feature, Aubrey Plaza’s budding fraudster replies by repeating the question back to him in a manner that conveys just how little she ought to be messed with.

The circumstances that pulled Emily into the world of crime are clearly if somewhat strenuously established by Ford’s script: the woman is saddled with the whole panoply of socioeconomic woes facing her generational cohort, from her crippling level of student debt for an art-school degree she didn’t even finish, to her unhappy cohabitation with unpleasant roommates, to her meagre prospects for any kind of meaningful, decent-paying work. Though her best friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) tantalises her with the possibility of a job at her ad agency and a meeting with her boss (Gina Gershon in a brief but shrewd appearance), Emily soon realises this may just be a more posh-sounding form of exploitation.

In the face of all that, who wouldn’t leap at the chance to earn $200 for walking into an electronics store and purchasing a TV with a bogus credit card and a freshly printed driver’s licence with someone else’s name on it? With her recruiter Youcef (Theo Rossi) eagerly accepting her goods and tracking her progress, Emily graduates to a more lucrative but riskier shopping expedition to a car dealership. When the sellers catch on to the ruse, she displays an impressive degree of resourcefulness and ruthlessness. Her reaction to a later robbery attempt at her apartment by a boxcutter-wielding couple searching for Emily’s hard-earned cash is distinguished by the same capacity, but it’s not entirely a surprise: we’ve seen her bristling, during a fruitless job interview in the film’s opening scene, at a discussion of her past conviction for assault.

Given Emily’s growing aptitude – after some initial skittishness – for criminal enterprise, it’s little surprise she turns out to be better equipped to handle the more treacherous aspects of the business than Youcef, whose gentler nature is obvious well before he brings her home to meet his doting mother. The fact that Emily so readily taps into her dark side places the character alongside many of the other women Plaza has played since perfecting her reliably caustic brand of deadpan as April Ludgate on the US sitcom Parks and Recreation (2009-15). Indeed, with Plaza in the role, the character’s eventual embrace of her moral flexibility and capacity for violence is something of a foregone conclusion, especially to anyone who appreciated Plaza’s penchant for menace in Ingrid Goes West (2017) and Black Bear (2020).

Whenever Emily is pushed to act on her worst impulses, it’s as if Ford is similarly compelled to steer the film into edgier terrain. At its most effective, Emily the Criminal boasts traces of the flinty variety of neo-noir epitomised by Michael Mann’s Thief (1981) and William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A. (1985); it mostly eschews the ostentation that marks other tales of ambitious, underprivileged youngsters recognising their flair for criminality, such as Boiler Room (2000) and the Swedish hit Snabba Cash aka Easy Money (2010).

Yet adopting a little more of its lead character’s cut-throat attitude would’ve served Emily the Criminal well. As fleeting as they are, the film’s higher-tension sequences find Ford on surer footing than he is with the more leaden scenes that strive to convey a wider critique of late-capitalist hardships or depict the burgeoning romance between Emily and Youcef. An actor best known for starring as another criminal who’s a touch too soft for life outside the law, in the US biker drama Sons of Anarchy (2008-14), Rossi gives some depth and texture to a thin character, but the love story is ultimately unconvincing – especially once Emily fully embraces the shark inside her and Plaza unleashes the ferocity that’s her most arresting quality as a performer. That’s the point when Emily reverses the power dynamic with her former mentor, and has a few things to teach him instead. “Motherfuckers will just keep taking from you and taking from you until you make the goddamn rules yourself,” she tells Youcef in a locker-room pep talk that could double as an inspirational dictum to disgruntled millennials everywhere.

► Emily the Criminal is part of the Thrill strand at the 2022 London Film Festival; it is screening on 11 and 13 October.

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