At a time when few movies display either a shred of originality or a fresh slant on an old genre, and so many are little more than cookie-cutter derivations of each other, it’s energizing to see something as keenly observed and uniquely competent as Emily the Criminal. It’s a tense and engaging thriller that looks and feels distinctively different.
EMILY THE CRIMINAL ★★★1/2
Emily is a girl from Bayonne, New Jersey with no particular desires to be rich, famous and extraordinary, but can’t even find a disappointing outlet in commercial advertising for her considerable talents as an artist. Eking out a meager living as a food packer in some sort of ghost kitchen typifies the challenges faced by so many Millennials who spend a fortune on education and graduate from college with no job, no prospects, and no guarantee of a future beyond bleakness and struggle. In addition, Emily’s chances of steady employment are further impacted by $70,000 in student-loan debts, a conviction for running a red light in the middle of a DUI with a large fine still unpaid. Clearly, this is a girl who desperately needs money, so she jumps at the chance to respond to an offer promising to pay a fast $200 an hour for a simple service. Trouble is, the “position” turns out to be an illegal scheme to steal merchandise using phony credit cards. It works, so the next day, instead of doubling her profit, she’s promoted to another “job” that pays a cool $2000! The plot thickens, and the action begins.
Emily is not a criminal by natural design, but one petty infraction leads to another, until she’s up to her earlobes in misdemeanors and heading for a felony. The script by first-time director John Patton Ford is a mesmerizing combo of genre augmentation and social commentary on the kind of inequality of American wealth that drives poor but educated people to the dark side of capitalism. The forces at work here include a tremendously effective centerpiece performance by Aubrey Plaza, who captivates and beguiles from start to finish. Emily discovers how easy it is to slide into the world of credit card fraud—a criminal pursuit that is growing in popularity among young people, and how inevitable it is to be abused by the system every way from Friday while they support themselves by selling their merchandise online, on Craig’s list, and wherever else people turn to buy and sell everything from catalytic converters and smart phones to batteries and Buicks.
This is a new way of life. It’s also a way to risk life. Fed up with being a victim, and unwisely falling for her partner in crime, a charming immigrant named Yousef (Theo Rossen), Emily declares war (“They keep taking from you and taking from you until you make the goddam rules yourself!”), a simple scam turns into a committed life of crime, and a meager bottle of mace graduates to a lethal box cutter and eventual violence and death. Writer-director Ford keeps the bloodshed to a minimum, but gets a maximum of suspense and anxiety out of the simple swiping of a credit card. No spoilers, please, but Emily the Criminal even defies the conventional ways thrillers like this usually end. The shocking finale, like everything else, owes everything to Aubrey Plaza, whose dull stare and taut jaw mask an intense intelligence throbbing beneath the surface. None of the stupid comedies she has previously appeared in (Funny People with Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World opposite the incompetent Michael Cera, or Robert DeNiro’s worst film of all time, Dirty Grandpa) prepared the world for the skill on view here, but I’m betting everyone will see her in a new light after Emily the Criminal. Taking her for granted now would be the biggest crime of all.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.