Emily the Criminal gives Aubrey Plaza the perfect platform

In the America of 2022, desperation is the norm. Wealth inequality is worse than it’s ever been, and wages aren’t keeping up with inflation, so in essence, if you don’t come from money, you’re fucked. The average millennial carries $28,317 in debt, and most of them have been hiking uphill on a mountain of sand for their entire professional lives. Corporations don’t pay taxes, and neither do the very rich. So what’s the big deal if the rest of us bend the rules a little?

This tempting question is at the heart of the thriller Emily the Criminal, the debut feature from writer-director John Patton Ford. Set in the gritty, street-level Los Angeles that celebrities try not to see out of their limousine windows, the film gets much of its authenticity from its nuanced depiction of the web of inequality, institutional obstacles, and just plain raw deals that entrap the protagonist. The rest comes from Aubrey Plaza’s lead performance, which goes from drawn and defeated to fierce and unfuckwithable as her character descends into the criminal underworld.

It’s not that she’s a role model. Emily (Plaza) is better off than some: She has a car and a relatively stable housing situation, infuriating deadbeat roommates aside. In other ways, she’s at a disadvantage, and has very little hope of her exhausting, frustrating life ever getting any better. She’s drowning in $70,000 of student debt, and the payments she diligently makes barely cover her monthly interest. To make those payments, she works long shifts schlepping catered lunches for a delivery app, hauling giant insulated bags of salad and pasta to feed white-collar workers who look at her with contempt and disgust — when they look at her at all.

Photo: Vertical Entertainment

She’d get a better job, like her wealthy ad-agency friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke), but a past DUI and aggravated-assault charge haunt her and hold her back. That was a long time ago, but it doesn’t seem to matter; in the film’s striking opening scene, the camera lingers on Plaza’s face at a job interview, anger boiling inside her as a smug hiring manager catches her in a lie about the red flag on her background check.

Does Emily’s short temper and decision to go to art school rather than get an accounting degree mean she deserves to toil in financial servitude for the rest of her life? She doesn’t think so. Her co-worker Javier (Bernardo Badillo) seems to feel sorry for her as well, and texts Emily a number for a job where she can make $200 in an hour, no questions asked. That “job” ends up being a credit-card scam, with Emily functioning as a dummy shopper using stolen card numbers to buy expensive consumer items that Youcef (Theo Rossi), the operation’s unofficial ringleader, can later fence for profit.

Once she gets past her fears of getting caught, Emily turns out to be competent at credit-card fraud. And after she gets paid $2,000 for an exhilarating caper buying a sports car with a fake card, she decides this is how she’s going to escape the cycle she’s stuck in and finally get ahead in this world. Her sexual tension with Youcef, who goes so far as to invite Emily to a family dinner to meet his mom, adds another layer of excitement to her new life. And when she starts getting big enough to attract the attention of other, less benign racketeers, she finds she has a talent for violence as well.

Ford’s color palette for this film — an industrial composite of gunmetal grays and navy blues that recall glass-paneled skyscrapers on a cloudy day — is reminiscent of Michael Mann’s crime classic Heat. And the amoral Emily would fit right in with Mann’s roster of hardened pros. Like James Caan in Thief, she’s good at what she does. But unlike with Caan’s disillusioned safecracker, her criminal career is just beginning, and the rush of realizing she does have what it takes is both exciting and validating for a character who previously felt life had nothing to offer her but drudgery and debt. The difference here is, Michael Mann has never written such a juicy role for a woman.

Plaza also served as a producer on Emily the Criminal, and the film is the latest in a line of projects where she’s proven that her abilities as an actor go far beyond rolling her eyes and making sarcastic comments. (She’s also excellent in the 2020 horror-ish drama Black Bear.) As a crime thriller, Emily the Criminal is well-written and absorbingly paced, but it’s Plaza’s fearless work that makes it memorable. She has a talent for playing volatile characters in a way that’s both sympathetic and a little scary, and that balance is exactly what’s needed to make Emily a thought-provoking everywoman for a debt-ridden age, rather than a simple cautionary tale.

Emily the Criminal opens in theaters on Aug. 12.

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