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‘Emily the Criminal’ Film Review: Aubrey Plaza Captivates in Class-Conscious Crime Drama

First-time writer-director John Patton Ford creates a star vehicle that also asks tough questions about economic advancement

When we meet Emily (Aubrey Plaza), she’s already a criminal. Writer-director John Patton Ford’s debut feature, “Emily the Criminal,” isn’t an exploration of how Emily becomes a criminal, but rather, how she learns to embrace criminality as her identity, her gift and her escape from a world that’s built to keep her down.

This tough, gristly crime thriller is a searing indictment of late-stage American capitalism, and a showcase for star and producer Plaza to reveal a steely new side to her talent. 

The cagey Emily is as lean and mean as Ford’s taut screenplay. We meet her in an interview for a medical administration job, jittery, defensive and coiled tight. When the interviewer probes her about her criminal record – a DUI here, an aggravated assault there – Emily storms out, refusing to explain – but, really, refusing to beg for his mercy and forgiveness. 

Within a matter of minutes, we understand Emily’s plight: She has $70,000 in student loan debt from art school, and her gig delivering corporate catering barely covers the interest. She’s living with roommates in a crappy Los Angeles apartment while her best friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke, “Late Night”) has a posh advertising career, jetting off to Portugal for photo shoots. Emily’s only safety net is crawling back home to New Jersey to crash with her stepdad.

How’d she like to make $200 in cash? It’s illegal, but it isn’t dangerous. We don’t even need to fully understand her to know she’ll take this deal. Who in her situation wouldn’t? 

Emily texts the number she’s been given and shows up to a strange meeting led by a man named Youcef (Theo Rossi, “Army of the Dead”). She’s given a credit card with a stolen number and is tasked with purchasing a TV. She makes $200. How would she like to make $2,000? She would. And thus begins a beautiful friendship with Youcef that is mutually beneficial, at least for a time. 

Vacant and dissociative when she’s around her wealthy friends, Emily is a cipher, always spouting the right answers. But when she’s in peril, she comes alive, and Plaza makes this switch beautifully in her performance. Emily is present, instinctual, street-smart and quick on her feet. She acts without overthinking and isn’t afraid of violence. Her fearlessness, or her willingness to overcome her fear, is what makes her dangerous. We watch Emily evolve over a series of incidents and violent escalations as she learns the tools of her trade from Youcef, forging a bond that goes beyond just business. 

Ford is wise to keep Emily’s psychology close to the vest; the assault charge lies in the background, just beyond our full understanding, but informing Emily’s choices along the way. It’s not just that she’s capable of violence, but her record is also a part of the structural obstacles she faces. 

We understand Emily’s choices because she’s an unprotected gig worker with a criminal record in debt for her dreams. Even as she earns money with her credit-card-fraud side hustle, she continues trying to claw a foothold for herself in a traditional, above-board workforce. However, it’s her disgust and refusal at an unpaid design internship that’s the last straw for Emily, underlining the exploitative and extractive nature of white-collar creative industries. 

This efficient, bracing social drama proves that a lot can be said with a little, and as a director, Ford focuses on the sprawling, secret underclass of L.A., found in swap meets, gnarled in traffic, bleeding on asphalt, securing the bag under the cover of darkness on a bus from the Valley. He presents a world that’s below the hillside homes and populates it with realistic supporting characters, from the guys who purchase Emily’s stolen goods to the Armenian gangsters she tangles with to the pompous art-world posers she meets through Liz. 

But cinematographer Jeff Bierman keeps his camera tightly locked in on Plaza; she is the eye of this hurricane, eerily calm and always in motion. While their accent work is occasionally wobbly, both Plaza and Rossi bring an immediacy of presence to their performances. Moving beyond the signature deadpan snark that made her a star, this is easily Plaza’s best and most complex performance yet, a signal that she is ready for deeper dramatic work or a bigger action thriller. 

In 95 minutes, Ford unfurls a gritty and suspenseful L.A. noir that also serves to examine the structural issues that uphold wealth inequality in this country. But “Emily the Criminal” isn’t trying to be preachy or political, it’s just authentic, and urgent, and Plaza’s performance keeps the emotional and physical honesty at the forefront.

In wrapping capitalist critique in a crime drama about an individual consistently locked out of traditional modes of advancement, “Emily the Criminal” isn’t so much Plaza’s “Heat” as it is her “Scarface.” Floating somewhere in the liminal space between humanity and sociopathy, Tony Montana and Emily seem to live by the same morally suspect, ruthlessly survivalist code.

“Emily the Criminal” opens in US theaters August 12.

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