Emily the Criminal

“You’re a very bad influence.” Who says this line, and why, and when, is a testament to the power of “Emily the Criminal,” written and directed by John Patton Ford, and starring Aubrey Plaza. The film plays like a bat out of hell, all adrenaline, similar to the Safdie brothers’ recent “Good Time,” although “Emily the Criminal” is more bare-bones and straightforward in its style. The film’s view of the “land of opportunity” could not be more cynical. This is John Patton Ford’s directorial debut, and it is an extremely impressive piece of work. Emily is a specific individual, but she is also representative of her generation’s particular struggles. She went to an expensive art school, graduating with a degree in portraiture and a mountain of debt. There is no way on earth she can ever pay it back, neither the interest nor the principal. Emily has a record. There was a DUI in college. There was also an arrest for assault. This means she can’t pass a background check, a roadblock when applying for “real” jobs. She works for a GrubHub-type company as a contractor (they can cut her hours with no warning and she has no recourse). She hauls lasagna into gleaming corporate offices, where women in tailored suits mill about waiting for her to finish. She is offered a promising internship, but the internship is, of course, unpaid. She can’t go without pay for five months. Who can? Emily is trapped. That is, until a co-worker introduces her to the world of credit card fraud. A group of people gather in a warehouse and are led through the process by Youcef (Theo Rossi), who says up front that what they will be doing is illegal (but safe), and if anyone doesn’t feel comfortable it’s okay to get up and leave. His manner is quiet and kind and he inspires trust. Emily is given a fake license, a fake credit card, and instructions on what to purchase for black market re-selling. Later on, as Emily gets up to speed, Youcef gives her a taser for protection and a burner phone. He shows her how to make the credit cards. She “takes” to this. The money is addictive. The thought of getting out of debt is an overwhelming incentive. Liz, Emily’s friend from art school (Megalyn Echikunwoke), keeps dangling the possibility of recommending Emily for a job as a graphic designer at her ad agency, highlighting the vast abyss between the two friends’ circumstances. (Liz, being sent to Portugal on business, complains to Emily, “It’s for only 11 days.” Only!) As the jobs get riskier and riskier, Emily’s true nature is activated, calling to mind the opening scene where Emily turns a failing job interview on its ear. She never plays defense. She goes on the offense as quickly as possible. She thinks on her feet. When she decides to fight back, she can be quite frightening. She likes Youcef, an immigrant from Lebanon with dreams, things he’s saving up for. Youcef likes her too. The credit card fraud aspect of “Emily the Criminal” is fascinating, a deep dive into the world of “dummy shopping,” but what ignites the film overall is Aubrey Plaza’s unpredictable and often thrilling performance. Plaza “came up” through the comedy world, which proves a point I once made in a piece for Film Comment about the dramatic gifts of actors mostly known for comedy (people like Barbara Harris, Catherine O’Hara, Madeline Kahn). Plaza is a wild card. She takes risks. Her deadpan delivery can be hilarious, but it can also be unsettling. She shifts it depending on the story’s context. Her performances in “Ingrid Goes West” and “Black Bear” show her willingness to travel in some very dark waters, as well as her openness to playing “unlikable” or at least “difficult” characters. Like Kristen Wiig, Plaza has carved out her own space in which to operate. She doesn’t seem beholden to the industry and its demands as other more mainstream actresses do. She feels free enough to produce something like “Emily the Criminal,” devoting herself to a first-time director. This speaks to her belief in the project, and also what she is interested in as an actress. This is not ingratiating material, and she is not “ingratiating” in it. Women don’t often get to play anti-heroes. This is the territory of 1970s cinema, all of those great movies steeped in the underbelly of the failing American dream. Emily is not a character you warm up to but she is a character you can’t help but root for. Youcef and Emily’s bond is an interesting one, made possible by the genuine chemistry between Plaza and Rossi. In a different world, a different time, “Emily the Criminal” may very well have been a romantic drama, similar to Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone,” mixing romance, criminality, class divides, and moral/ethical dilemmas. But “Emily the Criminal” takes place in too urgent and too dark a time. Things are serious. The system, as they say, is rigged. Emily doesn’t waste time with moral qualms. As she says, shimmering with rage, “Motherf**kers will keep taking from you until you make the goddamn rules yourself.” She means what she says. Now playing in theaters.

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