Emily the Criminal is an impressive debut feature from John Patton Ford, who had made a short film, Patrol, that debuted at Sundance back in 2010. The film stars Aubrey Plaza, who has become a frequent fixture in the films chosen for Sundance during the last decade. This new film is a punchy, quick-paced, tense crime thriller that should put Ford on a list of directors to watch.
Plaza plays the Emily of the title, who is working a low-paid service gig but trying to move up in the world. However, due to some criminal charges, that higher-paid work is seemingly closed off for her. The predicament depicted is sadly far too common for many Americans, so it feels very real. She gets offered a chance to make some extra income by doing a very low-level crime where she uses a cloned credit card to buy an expensive TV, and she gets $200 from the sale. Gradually she starts doing more, and doing it more often, and becomes closer to taskmaster Youcef (Theo Rossi).
The film completely hinges on Plaza’s performance, and she knocks it out of the park. Her trademark snark isn’t completely absent, but Plaza portrays a woman who is frustrated by an all-too-familiar situation that has her trapped. She isn’t necessarily likable, but she has an edge that makes you root for her in the end. Plaza also displays one of the more credible New Jersey accents that you’ve heard in the long time, you would swear she is from Jersey. It’s the kind of role Gena Rowlands would’ve absolutely killed in during the ’70s, and like Rowlands’ best performances it feels very lived-in.
Ford is a master of tension throughout: the early scenes of Emily’s crimes just ramp up the pressure, with the score, the editing, and Plaza’s performances creating a real sense of excitement, but also an amount of stress that reverberates from the character out to the audience. The sequence where she buys a car with one of these cloned cards is the real standout. It’s not as extreme as Uncut Gems in this department, but that’s the most recent film you could compare Emily the Criminal’s energy to when the film is at its absolute best.
The final act starts to falter, and it all gets conveniently wrapped up in a satisfying way, without the gut-punch the audience is hoping for. However, Emily the Criminal is an incredibly impressive debut that has something to say about the way capitalism wears people down, people who are simply trying to make honest cash can find themselves forced into activities that they wouldn’t otherwise dream of, whether it’s prostitution, robbery or, in this film’s case, buying high-value items with cloned credit cards. It’s a world in which you can identify with possibly having to do it yourself. The film is anchored by a great performance from Plaza. Emily the Criminal shows Plaza, an actress who just jumps from strength to strength with every new role, stretching herself in ways you haven’t seen before.
The Blu-Ray release from Mediumrare sadly only contains the theatrical trailer, a interview with Plaza and/or the director would’ve been a very welcome addition.