There is no fantasy element in it Emily the criminal, Aubrey Plaza’s character study about a woman who is excluded from the labor market due to an incident that remains on her permanent criminal record. But whether it’s a character’s dream of owning a Los Angeles apartment or Emily’s vague claim of “I just want to be free,” the film can could be feels like a desperate, recognizable escapism. Newcomer writer-director John Patton Ford, knowing that an unbridgeable chasm is a story as old as time, injects it into an extra but compelling thriller about how far one could go to fight back against a twisted all-too- real system.
The opening scene immediately shows how the system has failed Emily, who comes from a middle-class background, has tens of thousands of dollars in debt and is still unable to land a white-collar job thanks to her criminal record. But it’s an anonymous interviewer who catches her lying that her criminal record is based on a felony DUI — her crime, we learn, was a felony — revealing what we really need to know about Emily: Her tolerance for bullshit is low. Thank goodness it is then that Plaza brings her to the screen as both an actor and a producer.
She is, of course, no stranger to bitterness or malice (Plaza runs Evil Hag Productions, for example, and her voice of the Mother of the Antichrist in her series Little devil feels clearly on-brand). But here Plaza sacrifices her trademark irreverence for a bone-deep frustration that feels all too familiar, even ordinary, resulting in the most lifelike rendition of her career. When asked why she dropped out of school, the answers Emily rattles off — “Legal fees and student loans, I had to take care of my grandmother, I had to work” — will surely sound familiar to onlookers who make a living in America. or anywhere under the yoke of capitalism.
For Emily, earning a living means switching shifts at a thankless meal delivery from an apartment she shares with vaguely obnoxious roommates. There is talk of painting portraits, but she seems to have neither the time nor the energy for anything other than drawing sketches. While Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke), her friend since high school in New Jersey, has the idea of getting Emily a job at her cozy advertising agency, fellow food delivery boy Javier (Bernardo Badillo) gives her the number for a “dummy shopping”– Job: Making $200 an hour using stolen credit card numbers and fake IDs to buy goods for the black market. It’s illegal, but not unsafe, says quietly confident leader Youcef (Theo Rossi), who invites participants to leave the scheme whenever they want.
But even if there’s violence at Emily’s second job, the money she makes makes it worth the risk. In fact, she is addicted – to the money, perhaps to the danger, and ultimately to Youcef herself. Thanks to the defiant brutality of Plaza’s performance, plus Nathan Halpern’s tense music pounding through each increasingly precarious transaction, we hope Emily will exploit the loopholes of capitalism. There’s a sickening thrill of seeing someone cheat the system and say things like, “Assholes will keep taking from you and taking from you until you make the damn rules yourself.” After all, no one gets hurt by credit card fraud.
Until, of course, people inevitably get hurt. Emily’s idea of making the damn rules is to test first and ask questions later; The film’s most heart-pounding moment, a harrowing scene in which a box cutter is used, is where this story shifts from a meditation on financial stress to a one-of-a-kind character study. An animal caught in a trap will bite off its own limb, but then who would chase the trap layer in vengeance? Emily would, and her ability to justify such actions reaches near sociopathic levels — especially after a skin-crawling awkward encounter with Liz’s powerful boss Alice (Gina Gershon) over what turns out to be an unpaid internship.
She has mastered her by the time Youcef’s intimidating brother Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori) becomes suspicious of her involvement in their venture. Is Emily a thrill-seeking masochist? Is her affinity for scams born of necessity, or a desire to stick with the man? And is a criminal record a self-fulfilling prophecy for further criminal activity? (In other words, does the film’s title refer to this woman’s past or the future she chooses to embrace?)
Ford (whose only previous credit is the short film) Patrol) plays with the answers to such questions by deftly laying the groundwork for this character’s motivations and leaving the rest to Plaza. Her ability to deliver anger, the way it lives in the body, really like fear, is extraordinary. A twisted reading of Emily the criminal is that it is a coming-of-age story, the portrait of an asshole who discovers liberation in chaos, takes control by relinquishing control; Plaza, whose inner demons always seem to live just beneath its muffled surface, is ideally suited to walking the tightrope between despair and empowerment. Spoiler alert: We do indeed learn the truth about Emily’s crime — a moment Plaza downplays with confident restraint — and it further drives home the idea that her financial woes and combative philosophy are two sides of the same coin. While the details of Emily’s trauma may be unique to her, Ford’s no-nonsense approach brings us closer to the documentary than to the allegory; he challenges us to put ourselves in her shoes.
Plaza dares too, for delivering such a dark episode of the Plaza-Verse. Though she has since practically cornered the market with wickedness Parks and Recreation‘s April Ludgate, her real legacy can lead the way and produce original indies like this one; off the wrist Ingrid goes west for the nuanced Black bear, it’s always a joy to see her filter that sensibility through roles that feel modern and uncomfortably recognizable. Fans of her humor may wish for more than the occasional wink in Emily the criminal; despite being a portrait of extreme financial stress this is not Plaza Uncut Gemstones. Unlike that fantastic, almost absurdly tense character study, there’s no playfulness here – just an invigorating plausibility that can’t help but come across as grim.
It’s tempting to argue that Plaza is overdue for a mainstream awards push, that she’s a bold and insightful star to earn a serious actor Oscar on her mantle alongside her Film Independent Spirit Award. On the other hand, she continues on her own path – too good for the Academy, too original to play a Marvel villain (again), and way too far gone beyond any Hollywood debate about “unpleasant” female characters. Like her portrayal of Emily, it’s hard to tell if she wants to resist the system or just follow her gut. In Emily the criminalthe distinction hardly matters.