Right away, we learn three things: Emily (Aubrey Plaza) has a criminal record, $70,000 of student debt, and a bit of a temper. She’s stuck in the gig economy, delivering food for a catering company in Los Angeles and making endless loan payments that don’t even cover the interest on her debt. She can still get interviews for office jobs, but it’s a catch-22: tell the truth about her record and get thrown out right away, or lie and get thrown out later. When an interviewer catches her lying, she doesn’t apologize or explain. She gets mad. Emily doesn’t understand why her past mistake should be held against her forever, keeping her trapped in dead-end jobs under this mountain of debt. And as the title implies, going straight will be almost impossible. But Emily is trying to, with everything she’s got.
But while Emily is bitter about her curtailed chances, she’s not heartless. Shortly after the blown interview she does a catering colleague a favour, and in return he hooks her up with a side gig as a ‘dummy shopper’. This involves going to a warehouse where her photo is taken for a fake driver’s license and she’s given a credit card with stolen data to match. If she buys a flatscreen TV with that stolen card and succeeds in getting it out of the store, she gets $200, cash. The professionals who run the crime ring are cousins, Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori), silent and menacing, and Youcef (Theo Rossi, from “Sons of Anarchy”), who does the talking. He’s a careful and calm presence, a big surprise in that unpleasant environment, and Emily is impressed. She successfully buys the TV, gets her money, and immediately asks for more work. She handles a dangerous situation with surprising skill, which means Youcef is impressed.
Writer-director John Patton Ford does a wonderful job of showing how the mutual interest between Youcef and Emily slowly blossoms both professionally and personally. It’s always enjoyable watching a movie that teaches the audience something, especially when it’s based on something normal people could plausibly get away with, like buying a TV. Rossi plays the part of a hardened criminal as a wounded bird, a gentle man who has to work at not caring about the consequences of his actions, unusual choices in a thriller. And soon it’s clear that for Emily and Youcef paying close attention to each other is more important than the actual work. It’s like two people poking each other’s bruises, which can be incredibly sexy if it turns out the bruises match.
And it’s obvious Emily is very bruised. A stepfather is mentioned in passing but never seen or heard from. Her only friend, Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke), works for an ad agency as a graphic designer, has a gorgeous apartment and takes long business trips to Portugal. When they meet for drinks, you can see Emily clenching her throat so as not to choke on her jealousy. Jeff Bierman’s cinematography makes Emily’s world feel flat and the gorgeous weather feel oppressive. Liz’s world, where people are nice to each other, friendship isn’t a luxury and there’s plenty of money, might as well be the dark side of the moon. But when Emily and Liz are laughing together it’s the only time we see Emily anything close to happy.
Happiness is almost impossible, since the movie also slowly makes it brutally apparent how Emily is responsible for most of her own problems.
Despite being told never to fence anything from her home address, one night she ignores the advice and learns a painful and expensive lesson. But not for long; almost immediately Emily allows her anger to take over. The subsequent fight in the street shows not only her quick thinking and her ruthlessness, but also a frightening capacity for violence. This is extra shocking since Plaza is primarily known for comedy, but there’s nothing funny about what Emily is capable of. Plaza has turned her deadpan persona against itself, manifesting nothing but contempt, spite and an enormous capacity for rage. It’s a huge part needing big emotions performed by a big star, and Plaza goes all in. She completely owns the movie – in every scene, we can feel her every thought.
It’s all the more impressive since there are no guns in the movie, not that their absence lowers the stakes or minimises the violence. The choice to make Emily the engineer of her own troubles means this is not a likeable movie, but it is a relatable one. The mountain of debt piled on Emily’s back means that you never question why she is so willing to take these risks. And it’s all too easy to understand how someone can get into a little bit of trouble and slowly discover that, despite their best efforts, they’ll never get out of it. The question of how far Emily is prepared to go will keep you on the edge of your seat, hoping that something will come right at last. Because don’t even the worst of us deserve a little human kindness? Or do we?
Emily The Criminal premiered this past Sundance Film Festival 2022. Keep an eye out for a wider distribution soon. -Sarah Manvel