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Review: Emily the Criminal

August 12, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

Emily (Aubrey Plaza), the central character in the aptly titled Sundance crime drama Emily the Criminal, is a young woman in Los Angeles whose designation as a law-breaker is one that she seemingly can’t escape from.

The opening scene finds her being blindsided by a job interviewer who tries to trick her into voluntarily revealing a minor criminal record (including a DUI and aggravated assault several years prior) that he already has in front of him.

This is just one of the many obstacles that she faces in moving forward, with the film’s title serving as both an indicator of past behaviour that also all but determines her future. Emily is saddled with seventy thousand dollars in student debt, but can’t get honest work because of her criminal record.

She is stuck working for a catering company, with a manager who moves around her shifts with little warning and reminds her that she isn’t part of a union if she raises concerns. It’s for all these reasons that, when presented with a mysterious number from a colleague (Bernardo Badillo) and the offer to make two hundred bucks cash in an hour as a “dummy shopper,” Emily bites at the opportunity.

Little does she know that she is getting suckered into a well-oiled criminal racket run by Youcef (Theo Rossi) and his cousin Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori). The hustle involves using stolen credit cards to buy flatscreen TVs that will be sold off later, with the “shoppers” getting a cut upfront. Emily does the job, which leads to an offer for an even bigger mission (should she choose to accept it) the next day; this one with a payout of two thousand dollars.

Written and directed by John Patton Ford, making his feature debut, Emily the Criminal is a taut mix of crime thriller and low-key character drama. Even if there are cliched elements in the setup, the film is always engaging, mainly thanks to Plaza’s compelling characterization. Plaza brings her gift for bone-dry humour to the role, infusing many of her line readings with a sardonic quality (“credit card fraud” is her matter-of-fact response when someone asks what she does for a living, all irony implied).

But there is a deeper layer to her performance as well, with Emily’s sarcasm and steely resolve serving as a defence mechanism for the fact that she is barely scraping by and can’t stop being judged for her past mistakes, and Plaza deftly portrays these different facets of the character, which is crucial. As much as Emily the Criminal takes its cues from other gritty L.A. crime thrillers like Michael Mann’s Thief (right down to a cool synth score by Nathan Halpern that ups the tension), Ford’s film is also influenced by the social realist dramas of Ken Loach and the Dardenne Brothers, even if it doesn’t hit quite as hard as either of their best works.

Ford does a good job of building suspense through uncertainty, crafting a socially conscious, working class crime thriller that explores the dark side of the gig economy, and shows how easily someone can be sucked into the criminal underworld out of necessity. It’s a solid debut that boasts career-best work from Plaza, and builds to an impactful ending.

Emily the Criminal opens today in select theatres, including Cineplex Yonge-Dundas in Toronto. It’s being distributed in Canada by Vertical Entertainment.

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