Sundance Review: ‘Emily the Criminal’ is a lean, mean thriller with Aubrey Plaza’s most subversive performance ever [Grade: A]
If a film’s logline refers to the protagonist as someone who “gets caught up in the criminal underworld in Los Angeles,” there’s a good chance the picture in your head is of someone who looks quite a bit different than Aubrey Plaza. And that’s why we love Plaza so much, as she’s been subverting expectations her whole career, from her star-making days as the sweet and salty April on the hit series Parks & Recreation, to her current role as indie queen, starring in dark, twisted and often genre-busting films, choosing challenging roles that work against type. She does it again in Emily the Criminal, which she also co-produced, premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, written and directed by John Patton Ford.
The criminal underworld of Los Angeles is not exactly what Plaza’s character, Emily, is seeking to be a part of when we first meet her. A struggling artist who dreams of having the money and freedom to travel and pursue her painting in exotic locales, Emily is instead working a minimum wage job delivering catering orders to corporate offices. It’s not for her lack of trying to find a “real” job, but every interview she has hits the skids as soon as a background check is performed, and potential employers discover a past assault charge on her record. The frustrations continue to mount as she hits wall after wall, never able to escape her past. So, when an opportunity comes up to make a lot of cash in a small amount of time, she jumps at the chance. When it turns out that the offer is for her to be a part of a credit card fraud scheme, she is hesitant at first, but then decides to give it a try. It turns out she’s pretty good at it and she comes back, looking for opportunities for even bigger paydays. With more reward comes more risk, but Emily sees no other good options–plus, she kinds of likes it. She befriends Yusef, the original recruiter, and convinces him to let her run a scheme on her own. When Yusef’s bosses steal from him as punishment for working with her, Emily comes up with a dangerous plan to steal directly from the ones who have stolen from them.
Ford’s script is thrilling and engaging, from start to finish, but what makes it ultimately so much more is the layers of social commentary that bubble beneath the narrative. None of us are without mistakes in our past, but how much those mistakes stay with us and shape our future, depriving us of opportunities and denying our progression, is sometimes out of our control. Emily is driven to make bad choices in her present because of bad choices in her past, which prompts the question, when do we stop paying for our bad choices? Tired of not being in control of her own destiny, Emily decides it’s time to play the system that has played her.
While Emily the Criminal is a well-crafted film, what takes it to a new level is how Plaza brilliantly and deftly crafts a character who is completely accepting yet also completely defensive about the non-tenable situation society has forced her into. With few other options, she accepts a life of crime as self-preservation, owning it, learning from it and leaning into it. And Emily is neither remorseful nor apologetic. The world owes her this much. And, before you start thinking this is some great feminist manifesto, the best part of Emily the Criminal is its total lack of agenda, other than Emily’s “f*** you” approach to owning what she has coming to her.
Plaza is absolutely riveting in this film that grabs you early on and never loosens its grip, thanks to great pacing and a great script by Patton, a pulse-pounding, atmospheric score by Nathan Halpern, and tight, evocative cinematography by Jeff Bierman. If that’s not enough, there is a brief scene in the middle of the film that features Aubrey Plaza and Gina Gershon engaging in a verbal exchange that quickly escalates to name calling and cursing that is easily worth the price of admittance on its own.
But Emily the Criminal doesn’t need any extra help from cameos, as it is truly a thrilling and exciting enough film on its own, and is one to keep an eye out for, because it may be small, but boy, is it mighty.
This review is from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute | Low Spark Films