Many of us find ourselves desperate for solutions to debt and bills. Emily the Criminal chronicles one woman’s struggle to live past mistakes and simply survive. Student loans are at the forefront of the news these days, and Emily’s debt is at the root of this story. Director/writer John Patton Ford has created an edgy and intense working-class Indy-style thriller starring Aubrey Plaza, who shines as the titular character.
Emily has been swallowed up by $70,000 in student and a criminal offense on her record. She tries unsuccessfully to get rewarding and lucrative work and make an honest living. When a co-worker at her low-paying catering job tells her about an “easy” $200 gig as a “dummy shopper,” she jumps on the opportunity. It is illegal, but not dangerous. Drawn into the world of “easy” money, Emily takes more jobs, and some become progressively riskier.
Ford employs a less-is-more strategy, revealing just enough crucial details to engage us powerfully. Set in Los Angeles, Emily the Criminal looks at the city through a sinister-esque lens – stark white days and dreary dark nights. The intense tone starts in the film’s opening scene when Plaza’s title character is being interviewed for a position by a supervisor who seems delighted to catch her in a lie about her past before telling her that she isn’t getting the job. This experience sets up the tone for future encounters where Emily wants to trust but learns differently.
Plaza brilliantly channels her character Emily, a Jersey-born California transplant who made some bad decisions when she was in college and finds herself still trying to dig herself out a decade later. In past projects, Plaza excelled at playing characters both tough and easygoing, and these characteristics, coupled with just enough vulnerability and hesitant compassion, portraying unique, complex, and empathetic characters that draw fans in. Plaza’s distinctive screen presence adds dimension and depth to every project. She is the film.
Emily, the Criminal is perhaps one of the best films of 2022 thus far. It is strangely and successfully quiet in its solid delivery of timely messages about real-life struggles. Ford does an excellent job of raising the dramatic stakes as Emily falls more deeply into the illegal draw of money, with shocking sequences that pull the viewer into Emily’s world as she plummets into the criminal abyss. I am placing five stars up top for this subtle and stunning character-driven crime thriller.