In Emily the Criminal, first-time writer/director John Patton Ford makes simultaneously crafting a tense thriller and insightful social commentary look easy with just the simplest of ingredients. At first glance, the film may seem a bit spare or unassuming, laying out in its opening scenes an all-too-familiar American situation: Emily (Aubrey Plaza) struggles to get a job that will pay her enough to start making a dent in her student loans, due to a felony conviction on her record. These opening scenes establish her as a no-nonsense personality and her life situation as one where low-level nonsense is a regular occurrence. When Emily becomes involved in a credit card fraud scheme to make some extra money, the film opens up and becomes progressively more compelling as it goes on.
The main aspect of this film that already dominates discussion from anyone who sees it is Plaza’s lead performance. She perfectly captures the feeling of being done, being pushed to the limit in more ways than one, and responding in whatever way is necessary to regain some control. Emily proves to be a complex character, making decisions under pressure that always feel realistic, but sometimes unpredictable compared to what we’re used to seeing from protagonists in this type of film. This gives the movie a lot of its unexpectedly potent energy, and Plaza sells every single moment with authenticity. She has a magnetic quality that keeps you glued to the screen, but never in a way that feels overly considered.
This is someone who is in a desperate situation generally, and someone who is often specifically in situations where she realizes that things are more desperate than she thought. Plaza plays these realizations in an escalating way that truly never gets old, even as the film throws various twists and turns at her. The character is crafted in such a way that it’s always intriguing to see how she will respond or what she’ll do next, and whether or not she’ll be successful. She makes realistic mistakes too, and seeing her learn and evolve is another layer that keeps the film feeling more and more exciting as it goes on.
Much has been written since Emily the Criminal’s Sundance Festival premiere back in January about Plaza’s performance, which is undoubtedly the highlight of the film, but there are other aspects deserving of praise as well. Theo Rossi’s performance as Youcef, Emily’s mentor-in-crime, only gets more engaging as the film goes on. This is a character who easily could have been stereotypical in the hands of lesser filmmakers but always feels like a real person. His behaviors and reactions keep the film feeling authentic, and he and Plaza share a casual chemistry that elevates various scenes which need a certain something extra. Small moments like the way they share a beer at one point, or how he laughs as she tries to forge a credit card for the first time and gets frustrated, gives the whole film a lot of texture.
The other element elevating the proceedings is the editing, which uses a few key techniques to keep the tension high even between the major plot developments in the film. Many scene transitions are met with disarmingly loud sounds caused by ordinary actions, such as opening or slamming a door. If not well-executed, this could easily prove obnoxious, but any irritation it causes is used to this film’s advantage, supporting the sense of irritation and discomfort felt by the protagonist.
Scenes ending suddenly puts the viewer on edge before anything intense even happens, setting the stage for the armrest-clutching to come. These abrupt editing techniques are so consistent that they never feel like fake-outs, just something that keeps the film original and interesting on a technical level.
The most impressive thing about Emily the Criminal as a thriller is the way it conveys with such clarity the struggle of life in late-capitalist America, and the complex yet intensely regular humanity of people who have been defined societally as criminals. In this film, the scenes where Emily finds herself being poorly treated during a job interview have just as much tension as scenes where she faces off with someone who means her extreme physical harm.
One of the most explosive scenes in the entire film occurs when we find out one of these job interviews is actually for an unpaid internship, and the interviewer (a single-scene-stealing Gina Gershon) tries to spin Emily’s reasonable objections into “entitlement” using some all-too-familiar girl boss rhetoric. It’s a maddening and cathartic scene in equal measure, and an amazing example of how the film can tap into genuine, powerful frustration while still maintaining a compelling narrative.
Occasionally, Emily the Criminal does feel like a debut. Not all supporting characters are developed as sharply as the two leads, some elements such as the musical score and cinematography feel adept but completely standard, and those opening scenes spend perhaps slightly too much time on setting up things that the film never fully utilizes once it gets going. It does get going, though, and by the time the ending unfolds, it’s easy to recommend this to anyone who appreciates a nail-biter or wants a film that will provide things to think about after the antics have subsided. Plaza deserves all her accolades for providing this film with its physical presence and multifaceted soul, but Emily the Criminal is genuinely successful generally, both as a social commentary and an intense, lean-and-mean crime thriller.
Emily the Criminal is out in theaters now. Watch the trailer below.