There’s something vaguely amusing about the title of the new indie film, Emily the Criminal. It almost sounds like the type of children’s book that Samuel L Jackson might read to his little ones. But Emily the Criminal is nothing if not serious. Aubrey Plaza, best known for comedic roles, is cast against type as the titular character, a straight-talking thirty-something trapped in a vortex of massive school debt, a merciless gig economy, and her own checkered past.
Emily works at a catering company that hired her as an independent contractor, meaning no benefits, bargaining power, or job security. Desperately in need of a “real job,” we can feel Emily’s growing sense of futility in trying to establish a career over the course of two job interviews. The first is with an older man who deliberately sets up Emily for a gotcha moment by pretending he hadn’t conducted a background check. In the second, an ad executive pitches an unpaid intern position as a privilege rather than the cost-cutting exploitation that it really is. Both interviews end with Emily tossing polite restraint out the window. In the hands of a different performer, the expletive-laden dressing downs she gives her smug would-be employers might come across as nothing more than boundary issues. But Aubrey Plaza’s edgy acting projects a cynical intelligence that knows rejection is all but guaranteed.
When a coworker gives Emily a phone number along with a promise of quick cash, it leads her to Youcef, played by Theo Rossi. Youcef trains new recruits for a large credit card fraud operation. He tells them it isn’t dangerous, but warns they will be breaking the law. Despite her trepidation, Emily acquiesces and gets paid two hundred dollars to purchase a TV with a fake credit card. When an attempt to go after a more profitable purchase turns into a nail-biting experience that in fact does take a dangerous turn, she talks Youcef into teaching her the skills she needs to branch off on her own. Working solo, the rewards become greater, as do the risks.
Emily the Criminal is a remarkably strong first feature tightly written and directed by John Patton Ford. His storytelling and shooting style recalls the work of Josh and Benny Safdie, the filmmaking duo behind such cult crime thrillers as Good Time and Uncut Gems. Patton shares a thematic kinship as well; as with many of the Safdies’ creations, Emily is a flawed character struggling to survive in a dog-eat-dog world. The handheld camerawork provided by cinematographer Jeff Bierman gives the story a docudrama vibe. His tight framing and frequent close-ups maintain immersion and amplify tension in virtually every scene, and a color palette that leans heavily towards blues and greens imbues Emily’s world with a chilly ambience that reflects her sense of alienation.
Packed in a lean ninety-three minute runtime, Emily the Criminal is an edge-of-your-seat thriller aimed directly at millennials, replacing the glamor and sexiness prevalent in crime films made by previous generations with an indictment against the stacked deck economy that’s become the status quo.
For KSQD’s Film Gang, this is Paul Kanieski