Emily the Criminal (2022) | Movie Review

Aubrey Plaza may not be the best actresses in the world, but she’s certainly one of the most interesting, which is perhaps more important. Her ability to fluctuate between calm and frantic, and having eyes that seem like they’d be transparent but never truly tell you what she’s really thinking, the star is able to take over a movie like few others. And with ennui as a default position, it’s always startling whenever she escalates a scene.

In Emily the Criminal, Plaza plays the titular character, a thirty-something struggling to find work due to an aggravated assault charge from over a decade ago. Despite being more than qualified for multiple positions she interviews for, Emily can’t seem to land a reliable job so she can leave the restaurant she works for and begin making a dent in her student loan debt.

She resorts to “dummy shopping,” where she gets paid $200 for less than an hour of work. She’s given a fake credit card from an agency, goes into a big box store, “purchases” a TV, and then offloads it to her employer. Emily’s boss, Youcef (Theo Rossi), really likes her and offers to take her under his wing. While legit companies won’t hire her because of her criminal record, it turns out that actual criminals don’t really care.

Our society views past mistakes as a reason why you shouldn’t have a job, even though your debt to society has already been paid. So why doesn’t that debt go away? Although Emily’s new job is dangerous and illegal, nothing’s stopping her from pursuing a life of crime since her current criminal record is what’s preventing her from making any legitimate money anyway. For those who have real jobs, her struggle to find work is a sign of laziness. In fact, the harder Emily hustles, the lazier she appears in her other ventures.

Cinema is riddled with movies that have tried to speak on similar themes, but few have been staged so accurately and evoked as much catharsis as this one. Conveying the vicious circle that is the job industry as fed by the flawed parameters of the education system, Emily the Criminal is never anti-system but merely exposes the granular issues– issues which become contagious and contribute to larger problems—and begs for the system to improve.

Why should an art student pay as much for a degree as an engineer? And why are there so many positions in the art world that are unpaid? Emily’s student loan debt doesn’t cause an issue because she can’t find a job after college, but because she never finished to begin with. And now with the debt under her, she can’t afford to go back. But would it even matter anyway?

While not necessarily offering solutions, Emily the Criminal does show what can happen to a person who gets swallowed by said system. However, the film wisely always treats her like a singular example—not the norm.

Where writer-director John Patton Ford really hits the mark is in the way he treats Emily. While the movie offers plentiful sympathy for its protagonist, it’s also willing to show her flaws. Emily is smart and tenacious, but she also has a tendency to be careless and even dumb. Her gateway into real crime emboldens her to cut corners at times, which ends up having adverse effects.

Keeping the storyboard lean, Ford directs his debut feature with both objective precision and a personal touch. The director builds the tension and queues up Soderbergh-esque palpitations for the audience. Meanwhile, he prevents his movie from dipping into polemic territory by keeping the stakes big while also never trying to tackle or tear down the system as a whole.

In the way is compounds separate systemic flaws, this movie is reminiscent of the Russo brothers’ misery porn crime thriller Cherry from 2021. Although it helped drive the point, the stakes in Cherry were way too high, as were the repercussions for its main character. Conversely, Emily the Criminal isn’t allegorical at all but a study of cause and effect, and opportunity. And one that’s surprisingly enjoyable to watch as a spectator.

Twizard Rating: 95


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