Aubrey Plaza appears in Emily the Criminal by John Patton Ford, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Low Spark Films.
Down on her luck and saddled with debt, Emily gets involved in a credit card scam that pulls her into the criminal underworld of Los Angeles, ultimately leading to deadly consequences.
Anyone stuck with thousands and thousands of dollars in student loan debt will find Emily’s (Aubrey Plaza) struggle in Emily the Criminal deeply relatable. Written and directed by John Patton Ford, Emily the Criminal is a tense, well-executed, and deeply enjoyable thriller. Featuring electric performances from Plaza and Theo Rossi and an expertly-crafted script, Emily the Criminal immediately grabs your attention and never lets it go. It might not be the most original thriller to ever exist, but that doesn’t make it any less enjoyable.
An Enjoyable, if Traditional, Crime Thriller
As the film begins, Emily finds herself stuck between a rock and a hard place. She’s got a criminal record, her career options are few, and she’s saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans. But when an opportunity to make a quick buck in a credit card scam comes her way, Emily finds herself drawn deeper and deeper into this criminal underworld. However, the further down this rabbit hole she goes, the more danger she courts. But maybe, just maybe, the chance to finally get out of her financial hell justifies the risk… On the surface, Emily the Criminal isn’t all that different from numerous other crime thrillers. It adheres to most of the tropes we all expect to find. And it hardly pushes the envelope in any meaningful way.
But you know what they say – if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And, honestly, there’s very little about Emily the Criminal that needs fixing. Despite a slightly sluggish second act, Emily the Criminal is a well-paced, deeply entertaining watch. It’s shot well, edited well, and manages to hold onto its ever-increasing tension for the entirety of the film, perfectly paying it off in an exciting, satisfying climax. Tropes are tropes for a reason, after all. And there’s never a moment where the film fails to be riveting. Sure, there’s probably more that could’ve been done with its central ideas (more on that in a moment), but you’d be hard-pressed to find anything to really complain about here.
Nicely Explores Emily’s Motivation
What makes Emily the Criminal feel unique amidst a sea of similar thrillers is its commitment to delving into why someone turns to this life. More than anything else, this is a character-driven story about someone trying to reclaim some semblance of power over their life. To take back some of what’s been denied to them. Emily is desperate. So, it’s understandable how she could so easily find herself drawn to this world. And the same is true of her mentor, Youcef (Rossi), who runs this credit card scam partly to take care of his mother. These are people just trying to make the best of their bad situations. But after a while, of course, the criminal life starts becoming more alluring and addictive. After all, it’s devilishly hard to let go of power once you finally have it.
But that’s basically the point the movie’s trying to make. Both Emily and Youcef are complicated, nuanced characters. People who do the wrong thing for an understandable reason. Emily didn’t get into this trying to be a criminal. Yet here she is, enjoying every second of it. And, of course, since this is a thriller, things balloon wildly out of control as the film progresses. But there’s always that sense of grounded reality that sticks around. Emily’s desire to make something of herself, and to stick it to everyone who’s screwed her over across the years. There’s a scene late in the movie, where Emily’s getting interviewed for a competitive internship, that perfectly exemplifies the movie’s thesis. And while it’s a great scene, I do wish the film had taken things even farther. But at its core, it is a fairly contained, character-driven story. But it works incredibly well.
Great Performances from Aubrey Plaza and Theo Rossi
A large part of why Emily the Criminal works as well as it does comes down to Plaza’s captivating performance. I’m more familiar with her comedic roles in projects like Parks and Recreation and Happiest Season. But her performance here is what keeps everything so grounded. She does such a good job of communicating exactly what Emily is going through. Her desperation, her fascination with Youcef’s life, and her disdain for those in power who couldn’t care less about her. It’s a nuanced, relatable performance. And you can’t help but root for her, even as she does increasingly questionable things. Plaza’s performance also adds a lot of energy to the film. She’s in almost every scene, and she’s constantly driving things forward. If you’ve never seen her in a dramatic role, prepare for an absolute barnstormer of a performance.
Theo Rossi also delivers quite an impressive performance. His Youcef is immediately charming, making it easy to see why Emily might trust him despite, well, everything about what he’s asking her to do. But as the film unwraps more and more layers of Youcef’s life, Rossi gets the chance to deliver a surprisingly vulnerable performance. Honestly, he makes a good counter to Emily’s fierce determination. Rossi and Plaza share a great chemistry, too, with their scenes together quickly turning electric. Much of Emily the Criminal plays like a traditional two-hander, with the mentor and the mentee, and Rossi slots into that role quite well and only adds to the film’s success.
At the end of the day, Emily the Criminal is a deeply enjoyable watch. While I wish it had pushed its central ideas just a bit further, the focus on Emily’s motivations was enough to make an otherwise standard thriller feel unique. Buoyed by excellent performances from Plaza and Rossi and a tight, character-driven script, Emily the Criminal is an absolutely thrilling experience from start to finish.
Emily the Criminal had its World Premiere in the Premieres section of Sundance Film Festival 2022.
Director: John Patton Ford
Writer: John Patton Ford
Rating: 4 out of 5
Part-time writer, part-time theatre nerd, full-time dork.