“You’re a very bad influence…”
Written and directed by John Patton Ford, with his feature debut, Emily the Criminal is a satisfying thriller that stars Aubrey Plaza in the title role. The film not only tells a story that might mirror so many who find themselves in fraught times, especially within the current global financial disparity, but also one that endeavours to flip how we’d see it from a different viewpoint.
Opening with Aubrey Plaza’s Emily being interviewed for a job, where she reveals she’s had some small-time moments that gave her a criminal record, it’s all going well but then the interviewer reveals he actually knows she’s got an assault on her record – even though he’d said he didn’t know anything. Emily is obviously taken aback, she’s been tricked, and while there is the question over whether she should have been honest in the first place, it does feel like a sneaky move from the interviewer and she storms out, understandably angry.
During this argument, she mentions debt and you can feel the frustration. This fear of losing control of her life is further revealed when Emily goes home to her shared flat and takes a phone call that discusses credit card debt, growing interest and how to pay it off. Working a day job that delivers food to work places and serves it, it’s easy to work out that times are tough, the work isn’t paying much, and ends are barely being met. At the end of a shift, she bumps into a work colleague who gives her details of a different job, one that can earn a bit more cash: it’s a dummy shopper role, which is illegal and involving credit card fraud, but she goes along to the ‘meeting’ to discover more, with higher amounts of cash promised an easy temptation.
Once there, she gets involved. All she must do is buy a big-screen TV with a stolen credit card, and she’ll pocket a small percentage. She succeeds. And with it, other work comes her way which gradually involves more money, risker jobs but higher rewards. She’s hooked, even after one goes quite awry. The premise of Emily the Criminal is actually quite straightforward, but the key to everything is a stellar performance from Plaza at the centre. She naturally spins us through her character’s emotions and from the innocence of the unknown, to the growing confidence in her success, even through to her literally fighting to survive. When you feel you haven’t got a lot left to lose, you might as well try to keep what you have. It does feel like a modern scenario and that’s what adds an extra sharp edge here.
So the stakes get higher, the purchases get bigger, the money is good, but the pressure and reality is risker with every new job but we’re with her through it all, and I’d say that’s the humanity of Plaza. After doing so well, she starts managing her own jobs but then things take a turn for worse as a sale goes very, very wrong but instead of taking it lying down, she fights back, and we’re shown her impressive resilience once again.
Amongst all this is a building relationship between Emily and her ‘employer’ Youcef, impressively portrayed by Theo Rossi. They’ve got natural chemistry, and both dream of a life beyond the criminal and, sure this could lean into cliché but both Rossi and Plaza are authentic in their portrayal of the people they are, and who’s they like to be.
Emily The Criminal offers observations on internships, zero-hour contracts and doing whatever you can to survive, it doesn’t firmly force your hand in who you’d side with but with such a relatable, tough lead character, it doesn’t leave much doubt with where your support will sway in this enjoyable, highly watchable thriller that takes us inside a character’s dangerous journey right through to a satisfying conclusion.