Well-constructed indie thriller “Emily the Criminal” paints a realistic picture of just how easy it would be to get sucked into a criminal ring as a way to solve money problems. The country’s punitive economic system becomes the villain in this tense, timely film, and the social commentary, compelling storytelling, and strong lead performance make this an impressive feature film debut for writer-director John Patton Ford.
Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is desperate. Saddled with a mound of debt, she’s breaking her back taking multiple shifts at a food delivery company, just trying to make ends meet. After a string of office job interviews that go nowhere due to her minor criminal record, a coworker gives her the phone number of a place where she can make quick cash. Intrigued, Emily goes to check it out and meets Youcef (Theo Rossi), one of the ringleaders who explains what the job entails. Turns out it’s a gig as a “dummy shopper,” where she is asked to buy expensive electronics with a stolen credit card. Emily hesitates, but the allure of quick cash is too much to pass up.
The scenario is plausible and the story is compelling. Ford offers a commentary on capitalism in America, and it’s believable just how eager Emily is to do whatever it takes to get cash in her pocket. She quickly settles into the world of fraud, getting a rush from doing what she’s doing and always wanting more. Both the thrill and the danger of becoming involved in black market business isn’t glossed over, especially as Emily sinks deeper into the Los Angeles fraud underworld. It may be a simple credit card scam, but it is incredibly dangerous. Of course, what seems like easy money isn’t entirely so, especially when Emily crosses the wrong people.
What begins as a desperate move to earn the funds to pay off crushing debt feeds on human nature and desire for more. Greed takes hold, blinding Emily with the allure of easy money — and the criminal world. She becomes more confident, which leads to careless, life-threatening mistakes. The story is so intense that when Emily is in danger, it feels like the stakes are extremely high.
I am not a fan of Plaza’s work, but this is her best performance to date. You can see her growth as an actor in the transformation of her character too, as she navigates Emily from an exasperated day worker to a no-nonsense lawbreaker. Plaza gives Emily a hard edge that adds so much to the film. She finally has been cast in a role that’s perfect for her.
“Emily the Criminal” is a satisfying story of female empowerment of the criminal kind.