Hello Kweens and Kings. This is a review for Emily the Criminal. Emily the Criminal is an action thriller, and it is the directorial debut of John Patton Ford. This film stars Aubrey Plaza in a role that stretches her ability beyond her traditional comedic chops and the film is largely supported by her performance. I really loved this film. It has a narrow scope, so it won’t blow you away or anything, but it is incredibly effective at what it sets out to do. I want to talk about two things with this movie. I want to talk about the strength of its modern adjustments to a simple story. I also want to talk about the tension in the film.
Emily the Criminal is a directorial debut, so there’s no background to present here and I can jump into the premise. This is a film that sells itself on its premise. Emily the Criminal is about a woman named Emily – played by Aubrey Plaza – who is a number of years into her adult life post-education, and she is still struggling to land in a real job. She has tens of thousands of dollars of student debt, a criminal background, and a giant hole in her work experience, all of which makes her unqualified for any kind of work other than menial labor and unpaid internships. Early in the film Emily is referred to an opportunity that isn’t strictly legal but pays well. Emily’s financial situation worsens in tandem with her criminal opportunities expanding, which puts her in a classic moral dilemma between making money or being on the right side of society. If you are a millennial like me, you may feel pretty jaded about the fairness of the American economy. It may feel like the system it rigged against you. If that’s how you feel, this is the movie for you.
The strength of Emily the Criminal is in its adjustments to a classic story in the context of our current moment. The moment I am referring to is one where hundreds of thousands of millennials are saddled with student loan debt but that investment in themselves has not resulted in better opportunities in the marketplace. If anything, people with student loans actually have worse outcomes than their debt-free counterparts. Monthly debt payments act as a deterrent for unpaid internships that could manifest into real jobs. The monthly debt burden also limits an individual’s economic mobility to explore opportunities outside of where they grew up. This is clearly the case for the film’s main character Emily, but there’s further complexity for her character beyond this generality I think many people my age can relate to.
We quickly learn within the first minute of the film that Emily has a criminal background. What I really liked about the details of her criminality is both crimes in her record allude to an indictment of an entire generation of poor decision-making. The example we learn about in the first minute of the film is Emily was previously arrested for a DUI, but the context of that arrest was she was trying to drive her friends home – who were even more drunk than she was. Which is to say, there’s nothing unique about her decision because everyone in that car made the same bad decision but she’s the one that’s left out to dry. The other bit of her criminal background isn’t revealed until much later in the film, so I won’t spoil it, but that situation also suggests Emily isn’t a uniquely contemptible criminal but instead someone who had the misfortune of being the one person punished among many people her age making bad decisions. Your interpretation may differ from mine, but I think if you take this read on Emily’s character then the narrative of the film becomes intuitive and particularly salient to millennial audiences.
The narrative for Emily the Criminal is our economic system has created a dynamic between scammers and suckers. Emily was suckered into student loan debt, she was suckered into driving the car among a group of drunk people, she has been suckered in her personal life, and she’s also the sucker in her current employment opportunities. She’s an independent contractor and she is exploited by employers taking advantage of her full-time work. Emily’s exposure to crime isn’t simply a calculated decision to choose the path that’s more lucrative for her, it is a rare opportunity to feel agency and empowerment in her life. In her criminal enterprise, she’s not a flunky who has to weather exploitation and abuse by the legalized scams of independent contracts and unpaid internships. She has the freedom to engage or not engage in each new scam and she chooses to because the benefit is immediate and commensurate with the risk of her work. You can understand why she embraces these opportunities because it allows her to live with dignity, even if it puts her at great personal risk.
Emily the Criminal isn’t the first film to portray this story in this dynamic. There is an obvious influence from the Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul universe. Both of those television shows have an identical dynamic of presenting main characters who can only achieve self-actualization through criminal activities. And as I mentioned near the beginning of this section, there are literally hundreds of stories about this dilemma. Movies like Nightcrawler, Prisoners, The Devil’s Advocate, or even Quiz Show are all about characters who look at this dilemma and decide differently based on their situation. Emily the Criminal is unique because the specifics are grounded in a nationwide, generational reality. There are not a lot of high school biology teachers dabbling in criminal meth empires. But I know of many people my age who have embraced crappy or illegitimate career paths due to a lack of options. In fact, even I have experienced some of the scams depicted in this movie. One of my roommates purchased a television from a guy in a Petco parking lot. It was a very nice television that was sold to us for very cheap… and now I know how that happened. Emily the Criminal may be a work of fiction, but the story it portrays is truthful and that makes up the majority of its value in my viewing experience.
The other reason I loved this movie is because of its skill at building tension. I thought this movie would have difficulty with tension because set pieces surrounding minor scams have been so thoroughly explored it’s hard to imagine something novel enough to be interesting. I was pleasantly surprised. I think most movies centered around scams have their tension designed around our main character trying to prevent the mark from realizing they are being scammed. You see this a lot in Better Call Saul, or Matchstick Men, or The Sting. You’re watching a charismatic con artist dazzle their mark and the tension is born out of the character’s wavering ability to be convincing. That is not the approach to tension for this film.
Emily the Criminal isn’t a polished film designed around the spectacle of a con job. This movie is about the gritty reality of quick rip scams. It shows Emily doing scams and getting scammed and in both instances the tension comes from knowing when the façade of pleasantries drops, things get very ugly. They get so ugly you can’t reliably predict what is going to happen next. A simple theft may quickly accelerate to assault or attempted murder. Even if Emily escapes the situation, the implication of her criminal record means none of these close calls are ever truly settled. The increased volatility of each scam – and the loose threads of the messy conclusions to past scams – makes each new set piece thrilling. It feels like anything could happen. Anything could come back to make the situation worse. It’s messy and I found it a real strength of the film. Modern blockbusters in the past 10 years have struggled with crafting truly gripping tension. Mainstream film seems to have adopted a variety of unstated assumptions about what audiences will accept on screen. This movie isn’t shackled to those assumptions, so it feels genuinely thrilling even if the scope is relatively narrow compared to other similar films
Emily the Criminal is an exciting thriller with meaningful adjustments made to a proven story. I would give this movie a 4 out of 5. This is a really strong debut from a new director and a surprising expansion of Aubrey Plaza’s acting portfolio. I subscribe to the belief comedic actors tend to be the best performers because comedy is harder than drama and I think Plaza’s performance here is proof of that. I’m not a Plaza stan or anything. I haven’t seen much of Parks and Rec, and I can’t think of a single movie I’ve seen that she was in… so keep that in mind as I say I felt she disappeared in this role. I didn’t see a wise-cracking comedian pretending to be in a dramatic role. I thought her character was very convincing on the screen. There are also a handful of moments played for laughs and her comedic timing in these instances is unsurprisingly perfect. It didn’t seem like a particularly challenging role, so I imagine Plaza could have been swapped in with any number of other actors, but I felt her contributions were meaningful and benefited the film.
Emily the Criminal is an interesting companion piece to another movie from earlier this year called KIMI. That movie was directed by Steven Soderbergh, and it also depicts the economic realities of post-COVID America while focusing on a disempowered female main character. I think I liked Emily the Criminal a little more than KIMI. They’re very different in specifics when it comes to execution and major plot points, but in terms of showcasing the institutional corruption of our system revealed by a global pandemic – these are two of the most salient culture pieces for this year from this year. Like Kimi, Emily the Criminal has a narrow scope, but it undeniably presents a common view that our system has been corrupted and largely runs off of exploitation. Following that theme through Emily’s story in this film was engaging, the tension was gripping, and I really enjoyed it.