Emily the Criminal
Films about the navigation of postgraduate life, armed with nothing but aspiration and shallow pockets, constitute a well-worn mini-genre unto itself. Crime thrillers set in Los Angeles, the adopted home of countless proprietors of lofty dreams, an even more frayed set of cards to be dealt. Emily the Criminal, the feature debut of writer-director John Patton Ford, fuses the sensibilities of both in an experience which feels fresh yet close enough to the beat to maintain a sense of genre familiarity.
In spite of some subtle titular misdirection, Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is not a hardened criminal, but she does have a record of misdemeanours, including an assault charge, making it nigh on impossible for her to land a job which will scrape the sides of her student debt. While she searches in vain for such employment, she survives month-to-month as a delivery driver for a catering company in the capacity of an independent contractor, an arrangement that – as her boss is at pains to remind her in a bullish display of workplace brawn – leaves her with little to no employment rights. Disillusioned, and with her ambitions as an artist postponed indefinitely, she is directed by a coworker to an opportunity which offers “$200 for an hour’s work”, work which turns out to be the purchase of a TV with stolen credit card information. Emily reluctantly agrees to sell her services, in part due to the disarming charm of one of the operation’s organisers, Yousef (Theo Rossi).
Emily begins to lean into her felonious streak as the jobs offered to her by Yousef become more high-stakes in a Saul Goodman-esque illumination of duality and choice, with swindles and bamboozlements which, while not quite matching the tension and ingenuity of Saul’s (it is an impractically high bar to reach, in fairness), provide a neat fix for those of us suffering from McGill/Goodman/Takovic withdrawals. Clearly attracted to each other, Yousef helps Emily set up her own credit card theft scheme and they soon become a bona fide romantic item, reflecting, in no small part, Saul Goodman and Kim Wexler at their most scheming.
While perhaps intentionally incendiary, the film’s title is reflective of its lean efficiency. At just over 90 minutes, it is a spritely-paced romp with the fat burned off, held together by Plaza’s terrific performance which weaves nuance and formidability into a highly watchable cocktail, elevating the film’s caper quality to a more dramatic plane worthy of emotional investment. Emily says the things we want to say to our bosses: to the icy CEO who offers an unpaid, full-time internship, to the home invaders who want to frighten you into a malleable heap on your living room carpet. Emily is thus transformed into a rather rugged, realist superhero whose indomitability is rarely in doubt due to her cunning. While this may be construed as a lowering of the stakes, it lends a breezy quality to a film which may otherwise have felt heavily anchored by its thematic preoccupation with labour exploitation, as well as an air-punching catharsis which forms the film’s beating heart.
Emily is no hardened criminal, but her shell has been hardened by postgraduate anxiety. Emily the Criminal is a success as it explores the murky annals that financial instability can lead good people towards while remaining ostensibly a fantasy about kicking back at the world.
Emily the Criminal is available on demand on 24th October 2022.
Watch the trailer for Emily the Criminal here: