Director: John Patton Ford
Stars: Megalyn Echikunwoke, Theo Rossi, Aubrey Plaza
Like many millennials her age, Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is struggling to make ends meet in a world with endlessly rising expenses and inescapable debts collecting rapid interest. College educated and a lapsed artist, Emily is eking out a fairly unhappy existence in the competitive and thankless LA gig economy. Desperate to make ends meet and already nursing a spotty record of misdemeanors, Emily is tempted by a proposition to make quick cash for shady businessman Youcef (Theo Rossi), who trades in counterfeit credit cards. In the process, Emily the Criminal treads lightly into ground already suggested by David Fincher’s Fight Club; evocative of a world of underground scams – a network of adept and organised proletariat hiding in plain sight, as ubiquitous as Uber drivers.
Fincher’s testosterone frenzy announces itself as an influence, but is countered by the steady temperament of writer/director John Patton Ford’s approach, and the committed character work from Plaza (whose Evil Hag production company helped shepherd Emily the Criminal into being). Plaza makes Emily seem battle worn and fatigued from the struggle of her life. Sturdy, shrewd and capable. Her performance is redolent of Carrie Coon’s no-bullshit Nora from The Leftovers, and confirms what many of us have suspected; Plaza is a superb dramatic actor. Those of us who caught 2020’s Black Bear already knew this, of course, and it’s of little surprise. Capable comedians often make for the most disarming straight players. Offering her plenty of opportunities to showcase across the spectrum, Emily the Criminal goes some way to suggesting there’s very little she couldn’t do.
Though she initially mistakes skirting the law with a sense of quick-fix self-empowerment, Emily soon finds that Youcef’s operation is little more than a higher-stakes take on the gig economy she’s trying to extricate herself from. Indeed, Ford conflates the two in a buoyant montage sequence as Emily gets her legs under her working both sides of the law, thanks to Youcef’s tutelage. The two of them bristle with a convincingly underplayed sexual frisson (and, when it comes time, it is Emily who instigates their first significant sexual interaction). It’s only as she increasingly gains her own autonomy that Emily notably finds her footing.
Another masculine modern cinematic reference point more overtly recognised by Ford is NWR’s Drive, which is sonically recalled on the soundtrack (just prior to a high tension car chase, no less). Nathan Halpern’s score openly apes Chromatics’ “Tick of the Clock”. Emily the Criminal often feels like a welcome, feminist retort to these titans of Film Bro culture, and it’s interesting that the film hasn’t courted nearly the same levels of buzz despite sharing similar aesthetic qualities. Could it be Ford and Plaza’s deliberate (and somehow still provocative) inversion of perceived gender roles?
Emily is repeatedly offered legitimate assistance from her friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke), but she declines on more than one occasion. Perhaps out of pride or to evade perceived vulnerability, but more likely because her new enterprise offers her danger and fulfillment missing elsewhere in her existence. It is only when this leads her to direct violent action – a shock to her system – that Emily opens herself up to Liz’s overtures. Here once again, however, she is let down by the lopsided rules of conventional society. Emily the Criminal acknowledges and investigates a particularly feminine desire to rebel, to colour outside the margins, to steer into oncoming traffic.
And, emboldened by her experiences, a point blank refusal to be victimised.
“Don’t follow me too close,” Emily warns Youcef in a risky, late-stage venture to reclaim what is rightfully theirs; as fundamental a refusal of failure as any other exhibited here. Their foolhardy gambit is indicative of a dog-eat-dog resilience that Ford’s film makes pivotal to surviving in the world, painting a dim view of the economic disparities becoming self-evident across society. Emily’s warning, meanwhile, ought to be well-heeded; her steeliness is so lived-in, so a part of her defense mechanisms that one wonders whether she has the capacity to let anyone in at all anymore. Her bond with Youcef becomes sexually complicated, yes, but this itself reads as a surface level interplay when compared to their core kinship; greed, cunning and determination in the face of a remorseless world. If anything Emily is the more ferocious in this respect and so her off-hand words – meant literally in the scene – come to feel like a more overarching recommendation.
Time spent with Emily will lead you into danger. But as she herself has learned, danger is just so wildly intoxicating, who could resist?
This is a well-scaled picture. A crime thriller that’s wisely and generously bedded in character work and thoughtful real world optics. And in Plaza it boasts one of the performances of the year. Find it.