Emily The Criminal is a tight-knit thriller that effectively doubles as an arresting examination of those driven to crime by American capitalism.
In an age where almost every film wants to brand itself as a ‘social thriller’, it’s movies like Emily The Criminal that remind us why the genre is so fundamentally necessary, in spite of its constant oversaturation. The film, which tells the surprisingly engaging story of a young woman who quickly finds herself caught up in an inescapable ring of crime and deceit, makes the most out of every single moment by constantly keeping the stakes high and raising the danger at every turn – without ever sacrificing its true goal of highlighting the dangers of social exploitation.
Emily Benetto (Aubrey Plaza) is saddled with student debt and haunted by her criminal past when an opportunity presents itself to her – a minor criminal operation that promises low stakes and quick cash. But once Emily’s had a taste of life outside her dead-end job, her life begins to spiral into desperation and criminality, working her way up the criminal ladder in order to pay off her debts and lead a normal life. Though the story is simple, director John Patton Ford embraces this with an extremely sharp screenplay that doesn’t waste a single second with needless exposition, but rather blasts forward at breakneck pace for the entirety of the film. But what’s most impressive about Ford’s directorial debut isn’t its tightly-woven criminal masterplans or thrillingly-shot heist sequences – but rather its inexplicable ability to get the audience on the side of an unapologetic thief.
In the hands of any other director, this is where the story could easily crumble. Emily certainly isn’t a good person – she repeatedly breaks the law, shows very little remorse for the victims of her actions, and constantly makes the situation worse by allowing her desperation to get the better of her. She’s unquestionably in the wrong, but the audience still finds themselves rooting for her by the end of the film – and that’s because Ford makes it abundantly clear that Emily is also a victim. She’s unable to get a job because of her petty criminal record, unable to pay off her student loans because she can’t get a job, and consequently unable to live because of her crippling debts. She literally has no other choice, and whilst the film certainly makes no attempts to excuse her illegal actions, it clearly presents the entire situation as a tragedy that occurs because of the systemic classism that exists within a capitalist society.
Aubrey Plaza absolutely shines as Emily, and the way that she navigates her character’s complete desperation and hopelessness makes this one of her best performances to date. She’s compelling and vulnerable without ever being too likable, which maintains that level of distance necessary to pull off this morally ambiguous story. She effectively displays that none of this is Emily’s choice – everything she does, she’s doing out of necessity and as a response to the toxic society that has bullied and exploited her. It’s difficult to imagine that any other actress could have so efficiently captured the raw vulnerability that makes Emily such a great protagonist.
What Emily The Criminal does most effectively, aside from its great performances and sharp screenplay, is prove that a story is completely dependent upon the voice that tells it. Without somebody like John Patton Ford responsible for the film’s writing and directing, Emily The Criminal could easily have been just another morally ambiguous thriller about a lowlife criminal whose life spirals out of control as a result of her own illegal actions – but with a healthy dose of social commentary and empathetic character work, he transforms this story into something much more layered and conflicting. Something that actually values its characters as more than storytelling assets and truly keeps the audience on the edge of their seat with real, palpable emotional stakes – and that’s why Emily The Criminal succeeds in spite of its many potential pitfalls.
Emily the Criminal was released theatrically on August 12, 2022 in the US, where it is now available to watch on VOD. In the UK, the film will be available to rent and own from October 24.