There is no fantasy element to Emily The Criminal, Aubrey Plaza’s character study about a woman locked out of the job market by an incident that remains on her permanent criminal record. But whether it’s one character’s dream of owning a Los Angeles apartment or Emily’s vague assertion of “I just want to be free,” the film’s possibility of what could be feels like desperate, relatable escapism. Newcomer writer-director John Patton Ford, knowing that unbridgeable gap is a tale as old as time, injects it into a spare but riveting thriller about the lengths an individual might go to to fight back against a fucked-up yet all-too-real system.
The opening scene wastes no time illustrating how the system has failed Emily, who comes from a middle-class background, is tens of thousands of dollars in debt, and remains unable to land a white-collar job thanks to her criminal record. But it’s a faceless interviewer catching her in the lie that her record is based on a misdemeanor DUI—her crime, we learn, was a felony assault—that reveals what we really need to know about Emily: her tolerance for bullshit is low. Thank goodness, then, that it’s Plaza bringing her to the screen both as actor and producer.
She’s no stranger to bitterness or malice, of course (Plaza runs Evil Hag Productions, for one, and her voicing of the Antichrist’s mother on her series Little Demon feels distinctly on-brand). But here Plaza sacrifices her signature irreverence for a bone-deep frustration that feels all too relatable, even ordinary, resulting in the most true-to-life performance of her career. When asked why she didn’t finish 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 audience members making a living in America, or anywhere under the yoke of capitalism.
For Emily, making a living means juggling shifts at a thankless meal delivery gig out of an apartment she shares with vaguely unpleasant roommates. There’s mention of painting portraits, but she seems to have neither time nor energy for anything but doodling sketches. While Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke), her friend since high school back in New Jersey, floats the idea of landing Emily a job at her cushy ad agency, fellow food deliverer Javier (Bernardo Badillo) slips her the number for a “dummy shopping” job: make $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 ringleader Youcef (Theo Rossi), inviting participants to leave the scheme whenever they like.
But even when violence ensues at Emily’s second job, the cash she earns makes it worth the risk. In fact, she’s hooked—on the money, perhaps on the danger, and eventually on Youcef himself. Thanks to the defiant ferocity of Plaza’s performance, plus Nathan Halpern’s tense music throbbing through each increasingly precarious transaction, we’re rooting for Emily to exploit capitalism’s loopholes. There’s a sick thrill in seeing someone cheat the system and say things like, “Motherfuckers will keep taking from you and taking from you until you make the goddamn rules yourself.” After all, no one gets hurt from credit card fraud.
Until, of course, people inevitably get hurt. Emily’s idea of making the goddamn rules is to tase first and ask questions later; the film’s most pulse-pounding moment, a harrowing breaking-and-entering scene involving a box cutter, is where this story shifts from a meditation on financial stress to a singular character study. An animal caught in a trap will gnaw off its own limb, but who in their right mind would then pursue the trap-layer in vengeance? Emily would, and her ability to justify such actions reaches near-sociopathic levels—especially after a skin-crawlingly awkward meeting with Liz’s high-powered boss Alice (Gina Gershon) about what turns out to be an unpaid internship.
She’s in way over her head by the time Youcef’s intimidating brother Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori) grows suspicious of her involvement in their enterprise. Is Emily a thrill-seeking masochist? Is her affinity for scamming born out of need, or a desire to stick it to the man? And is a criminal record a self-fulfilling prophecy for further criminal activity? (Put another way, 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 truly as fear, is extraordinary. A twisted reading of Emily The Criminal is that it’s a coming-of-age tale, the portrait of a fuck-up discovering liberation in chaos, taking control by relinquishing control; Plaza, whose inner demons always seem to live just below her muted surface, is distinctly suited to walking a tightrope between desperation and empowerment. Spoiler alert: We do indeed learn the truth about Emily’s felony—a moment Plaza downplays with assured 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 might be unique to her, Ford’s no-frills approach takes us closer to documentary than allegory; he dares us to put ourselves in her shoes.
Plaza is daring too, for delivering such a dark installment of the Plaza-Verse. Although she’s practically cornered the market on deadpan wickedness since Parks And Recreation’s April Ludgate, her real legacy may become leading and producing original indies like this one; from the off-kilter Ingrid Goes West to the nuanced Black Bear, it’s always a treat to see her filter that sensibility through roles that feel modern and uncomfortably relatable. Fans of her humor may find themselves wishing for more than occasional winks in Emily The Criminal; despite it being a portrait of extreme financial stress, this is not Plaza’s Uncut Gems. Unlike that fantastically, almost absurdly tense character study, there’s no playfulness to be found here—only a bracing plausibility that can’t help but come off as grim.
It’s tempting to claim Plaza is overdue for a mainstream awards push, that she’s a bold and insightful enough star to deserve a serious-actor Oscar on her mantle alongside her Film Independent Spirit Award. Then again, she’s forging ahead in her own lane—too good for the Academy, too much of an original to play a Marvel villain (again), and far too advanced past any Hollywood debate about “unlikeable” female characters. Much like her portrayal of Emily, it’s hard to tell whether she’s setting out to push back against the system or just following her gut. In Emily The Criminal, the distinction hardly matters.
#Aubrey #Plaza #Shines #Dark #Thriller