Film - Emily the Criminal

Ren Zelen watched Emily the Criminal at Sundance Film Festival...

Writer/Director: John Patton Ford

Starring: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Jonathan Avigdori, Bernardo Badillo, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Sheila Korsi

The thing that turns John Patton Ford’s small-budget thriller Emily the Criminal, into a smart, compelling action drama is a complex performance by Aubrey Plaza. In their hands the film becomes a tense ride into the death of the ‘American Dream’ and the fallacy that the system isn’t loaded against the working man and woman. In the current gig economy, the illusion that working hard will pull you up out of debt and into another social sphere is evaporating fast.

Plaza’s Emily is finding it hard to survive in the so-called ‘land of opportunity’. She is mired in student debt and landing a decently paid job isn’t easy when you are consistently thwarted by the mistakes of the past. Half a degree from art school and a DUI on her record constantly scuppers any chance she may have in job interviews.

The best Emily can do for the time being is a menial post as a food delivery driver. She has a well-to-do friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) from college who works at a slick advertising agency and who is dangling the opportunity of a job there when a vacancy arises. Meanwhile, Emily must deal with an exploitative boss who will cut her hours without warning. Once an aspiring painter, Emily struggles to pay off the interest on her student loans, let alone settle them.

For doing a favour for co-worker Javier (Bernardo Badillo) Emily is repaid with a phone number to call if she wants to make some extra cash to supplement her meagre salary. Out of curiosity she calls the number and finds herself at a meeting of people willing to become ‘Dummy shoppers’. These are people sent out to buy large-ticket items on stolen credit cards and leave before the store can discover the scam, handing the items over to the gang who will then sell them on.

The first ‘training’ session is run by Youcef (Theo Rossi), and it plays out with the mundanity of instructions given in a call centre. The participants are assured that no-one will be harmed in the venture, but that they must understand that what they are being asked to do is illegal, and if they have a problem with that they are free to leave. Some do and Emily is also hesitant, but in her desperation, she decides to risk it, just the one time, for the $200 payout.

The scam goes without a hitch and Emily impresses Youcef enough with her sang-froid for him to ask her back for a bigger job the next day. Undoubtedly, she is an asset, a petite, white female is likely to draw less suspicion than almost anyone else involved in the scam, as most of them are male and of ethnic origin. Lured by a payout of $2,000 for the next job, Emily concludes that perhaps Youcef and his cousin Khalil’s (Jonathan Avigdori) operation is worth another try.

This job is indeed higher-stakes and more dangerous, but despite running into threat and violence, Emily goes through with it and delivers the goods. When she collects the money, bruised and bleeding, Youcef can’t help but ask her the question, “You can’t make money another way?” Emily fires back, “You can’t make money another way?” It seems that neither of them have an answer.

Beaten down by her day job, Emily is drawn to the idea of getting into the scam in a more hands-on way. She persuades Yusuf to clue her into how the plan works and to instruct her into cutting her own fake cards and amassing the stolen goods herself. He agrees, as long as she brings a cut of her earnings back to him. Emily rapidly goes down a rabbit hole of schemes and thefts, seeing it as a temporary solution that might pull her out of debt.

Youcef, a recent Lebanese immigrant, clearly has a soft spot for Emily, and he confesses he’s in the swindle only to amass enough money to buy a small apartment block, one unit of which is going to house his mother (Sheila Korsi). It’s not long before the two embark on a relationship and begin to share their hopes for the future.

Emily’s talent as a thief is that she’s able to slip about undetected, but she gets sloppy and visits the same superstore twice in one week, which is definitely against the rules. Khalil, however, has never approved of Emily’s involvement and is furious at her lapse which might jeopardize their whole operation.

Youcef suggests that they should cut their losses and get out, taking all the money from the operation with them. This would involve a dangerous heist which Emily thinks may be a step too far.

Not wishing to let Youcef down she keeps secret the fact that she has now been offered an interview at her friend Liz’s prestigious advertising firm. Emily is tutored and prepared by Liz and is confident that she can get through the interview.

But Emily is one of many young adults caught between costly college debt and the today’s extortionist demands that interns do unpaid labour and be grateful for the ‘opportunity’. The post at the agency turns out to be one for an unpaid intern, asked to work for free for months in the hope of a job at the end.

So, in such an unfair system, the film implies, why are we surprised that Emily decides her only route is a criminal one? But there is no such thing as ‘easy’ money and when life gives Emily and Youcef another kick in the teeth, world-weary and angry, Emily decides that enough is enough, and it’s time to kick life back. The world has beaten her down so much, it’s time for Emily to do some of the beating.

Patton Ford doesn’t hide the fact that Emily has made bad choices and that her prickly nature has been at the heart of some of her problems, but her bolshiness is, ironically, also what makes the audience root for her when she fights back against those who try to take advantage of her, even though fighting is what has ostensibly messed up her past.

Emily may find her calling as a criminal, she may be an anti-heroine, but she's also a woman for these unjust times, where other avenues just keep closing in front of her.

Aubrey Plaza has always been a compelling actor and an acknowledged Indie queen, and she’s always made interesting rather than obvious career choices. In Emily the Criminal she displays yet another string to her creative bow. Plaza saw the potential in Patton Ford’s script and set out to produce it. Her instincts were sound. It was a plum role for her, and she plays it to the hilt.

Review Copyright R.H. Zelen – ©RenZelen 2022 All rights reserved.

Images - Sundance Film Festival/IMDb

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