Emily the Criminal
by Hope Madden
The American Dream is a myth at best, a nightmare at worst in first-time filmmaker John Patton Ford’s lean indictment of capitalism, Emily the Criminal.
There’s a fearlessness born of anger in both Ford’s script and his lead’s performance. Aubrey Plaza flexes dramatic muscle as Emily, a savvy, hardworking young woman beset on all sides by forces crafted to keep the poor, poor—women in particular.
We meet Emily mid-interview, caught in a lie about her criminal record. Plaza’s roiling emotional reaction to the interview — a brilliant piece of acting — tells you all you need to know about the character’s character, backstory, and future.
Seventy grand in debt from art school, working catering gigs that barely put a dent in the loan interest, still holding out hope for a good, honorable, mainstream gig with an advertising agency, Emily’s on the ropes. Does she want to make a quick $200? The job’s illegal, but no one will get hurt.
Of course she does, and she’ll also take tomorrow’s $2000.
Ford’s tight script reveals only what’s necessary and rethinks nobility. Even as Emily begins to embrace and hone her criminality, she never loses sight of the true goal: comfy, secure, posh employment. But that’s as big a set up as college was.
It’s great to see Plaza not only playing a dramatic role but shouldering lead responsibilities. She’s in every scene —nearly every shot of every scene—and carrying that weight with grit. In her hands, Emily is defensive, cagey, and unafraid to be unlikeable. Plaza’s electric.
Theo Rossi provides a surprising, tender presence in a role where you wouldn’t expect it. He and Plaza sparkle together. You root for them, regardless of their occupation.
Emily the Criminal delivers the realistic inverse to a Tarantino or Scorsese. There’s no glamour to the criminal life. It’s a gig. And sometimes you gotta take the gig.