‘Emily the Criminal’ Review: Aubrey Plaza Kills It

Aubrey Plaza knows something about stealing. With her laser gaze and deadpan timing, she can say absolutely nothing and sneakily pocket a scene. With the right setup, its characters can memorably push the boundaries of acceptable behavior, blending absurdity and menace into often dangerously unstable proportions. It’s what made her such a likable stalker on “Ingrid Goes West” and such a naughty nun on “The Little Hours.” She pulled off perhaps her stealthiest act of cinematic theft in “Happiest Season,” a cheerful holiday rom-com in which supporting actor Plaza nonetheless positioned herself as a plausible, if not preferable, romantic ideal.

Plaza doesn’t have to steal scenes from “Emily the Criminal.” She plays the title role, and nearly every moment — starting with the one when Emily storms out (not for the last time) from a demeaning job interview — is rightfully hers. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker John Patton Ford, the film is both a gripping thriller and a sharp dismantling of predatory capitalism, with a protagonist who rides a hellish Venn diagram of student loan debt, exploitative labor and sheer rotten luck. Emily has quite a bloody history, though her natural discretion and rejection of self-pity keep her from looking like one. She also has an aggravated assault conviction on her record, making it nearly impossible for her to find steady work, let alone pay off the $70,000 she owes for an unfinished art degree.

Ford doesn’t immediately reveal the circumstances of that assault conviction, and aside from a few specifics — Emily is from New Jersey and has the accent to prove it — he keeps his background pretty vague. He wants to keep us at a partial distance from Emily, suggesting something of her capacity for violence while keeping us firmly by her side. Not that it’s hard to empathize: whatever happened in the past, she’s making a good faith effort to pull herself together in the present. She shares a cramped apartment in Los Angeles with two roommates and pretty much gets by doing food deliveries, a job as an independent contractor with lousy predictable salaries, no benefits and inflexible hours. A jet-set college friend (Megalyn Echikunwoke) always promises to help Emily get her foot in the door of a high-end ad agency, promising her a bright future they both know that will never happen.

It’s one of Emily’s colleagues (Bernardo Badillo) who slips her a real, albeit illegal, opportunity. A good operator named Youcef (a very good Theo Rossi) lays down the rules: as a “dummy shopper”, Emily will go to a big box store and buy electronics using a fake credit card, then will slip away before the flight. is discovered. The goods will be picked up and resold, and they will be paid $200 — not bad for an hour’s work. And Emily, to her surprise, anxiety, and excitement, turns out to be very good at this kind of work, in part because few people suspect her of doing it. One of the film’s most honest, if unspoken, points is how a white woman could benefit from the doubt — and even move on — in a way that Emily’s other dummy buyers, some of whom are black and Latino men, clearly don’t.

Theo Rossi and Aubrey Plaza in the movie “Emily the Criminal”.

(Road Attractions and Vertical Entertainments)

But whatever Emily may represent sociologically, she is above all a figure of sustained and very specific dramatic interest. One of the pleasures of Plaza’s performance is how it shows us a person working their fight-or-flight instincts in real time, and in ever more dangerous transactional situations. We see Emily’s caution and recklessness collide when confronted by a suspicious car dealership or, in one particularly harrowing episode, a knife-wielding thief. We also savor her growing satisfaction when, with the help of Youcef, she launches her own racket, printing credit cards, recovering merchandise and organizing resales herself. It all takes place in an array of almost obviously unpleasant Los Angeles locations, filmed here with choppy immediacy. (Ford’s skilled collaborators include Jeff Bierman, who handled the film’s portable cinematography, and Nathan Halpern, who composed the regularly thrilling score.)

It falls to Youcef, a Lebanese immigrant with his own history of bad luck, to give this modern-day noir his whisper of romantic fatalism. Given the initially combative and increasingly sexy sparks flying between him and Emily, this development is both unsurprising and far from unwelcome. Yet as Emily and Youcef’s business arrangement becomes mired in emotional complications, Ford’s plot loses some of its earlier tension; the home stretch becomes looser and more jagged even as it pushes both characters to new levels of desperation. But if the film doesn’t function entirely as an exercise in genre, it is more assured as a portrait of a woman who has learned to function in a permanent survival mode.

It’s telling that even when her credit card fraud operation begins to take off, Emily knows not to let herself go or neglect her other sources of income. She keeps making her food deliveries and keeps hustling for that big interview, which allows Ford to squeeze in some side points about the injustices of the gig economy and — in a scene likely to inspire nods. – full-time unpaid internships. . It’s not the hard work that bothers Emily; it’s the little she and (by extension) millions of Americans receive in return for their hard work, thanks to social forces more cruelly, immorally exploitative than the illegal activities of any individual. This may be the story of Emily the Criminal, but Ford reserves her harshest accusation for the system that created her.

“Emily the Criminal”

Evaluation: R, for language, some violence and brief drug use

Operating time: 1 hour 35 minutes

Playing: Starts August 12 in general release

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