Emily the Criminal represents a modern response to ever-present issues in society. Film noir in the 1940s and 1950s often focused on men who had served in World War II. Upon returning to society, they find themselves out-of-step and lost. Not only is their home life a shell of what it once was, but work does not come easy. Either they lose jobs or simply cannot find them, thus a criminal life hardly looks unethical – rather it becomes a necessity to survive. Emily Benetto (Aubrey Plaza) is no war veteran, though she faces similar struggles. An art school dropout with a criminal record and a mountain of student debt, opportunity for advancement is sparse. She is left to contend with a gig economy that enables her to come close to making rent, while living on the bare necessities. When presented with an opportunity to make quick money doing something illegal and then finding out she is pretty good at that task, Emily can hardly say no. It may be unethical, but like the noir protagonists of old, this is a cynical tale filled with desperation and an honest portrayal of what one can do with their back against the wall, fed up with being pushed around by society.
Director John Patton Ford wisely offers no moral judgment in Emily the Criminal. It is a matter-of-fact film, laying bare the ills of society that would make crime a possible path and the barriers around actually sustainable work. Emily works first as a dummy shopper, being paid to just go into stores and buy something, all with stolen credit card numbers and identities. Obviously, this is wrong but Emily the Criminal never feels the need to explain this or critique the ethics of such work. It is the only option Emily has to earn a livable wage and what that says about society is a far greater issue than any legal or moral barrier she has crossed. Passionate about art, all that seems available to Emily in this line is dreaming about her work, rejections due to her criminal record, and unpaid internships. As an independent contractor working as a caterer, Emily finds not only few rights and an always-shifting schedule but little pay to the point that the quick cash and disassociated nature of this credit card scheme is not only palatable, but logical. While many classic noirs would follow a familiar beat, they would have to circle back and punish the protagonist for daring to step outside of social and legal mores to stay in compliance with the Hays Code. Not shackled by any such restrictions, Emily the Criminal is able to follow the dark and nefarious path Emily takes to a fitting conclusion, never shying away from the brutality and underbelly of society she must rub shoulders with or the violence she must unleash within herself to stay alive.
Emily the Criminal presents not only fierce social commentary, but provides plenty of thrills as well. Watching Emily adjust to her new life, dealing with dangerous men who do not enjoy getting ripped off or confronting intruders in her home, is a nervy experience. Ford paces the action well, often pairing with DP Jeff Bierman in these moments for intense close-ups on Plaza that keeps her emotion and reaction central to the scene while somewhat obscuring the rest of the action. In the case of a sudden attack on her, her attackers are largely off-screen with just a boxcutter and a voice in the next room being heard. It ramps up the suspense well, keeping the viewer on edge the entire time. The film’s climactic scene is a great showcase of the tension that Ford can conjure up, as well. Between tight framing, no score in the background, and moving through this home filled with possible danger, Emily the Criminal nails the mood of the scene and delivers a very satisfying climax.
The cast also delivers, as Aubrey Plaza shows once again that she is great in leading roles. As with films like Ingrid Goes West before, Plaza demonstrates her ability to dive within her character to reveal the dark and shifty layer underneath. Emily is not all that meets the eye, having a fed up and fiery soul within her that is simply done with being exploited. Faced with any challenge, Plaza shows that determination and believably shows just how far Emily will go to finally take what she believes to be her’s. As a part of the credit card fraud group, Theo Rossi is impressive as Youcef, offering an empathetic and understanding performance of this man. An immigrant from Lebanon, Youcef showcases another side of the capitalistic underbelly that Emily confronts. Rather than student loan debt, it is prejudice and a shared lack of opportunity that leaves working in his cousin’s criminal organization as an easier path to success. Possessing considerable dreams and an entrepreneurial spirit, Youcef is not a hardened criminal, just a man fighting for every inch he can get. Rossi captures this well, while having strong chemistry with Plaza. As business and romantic partners, the pair play off of one another well with Rossi exuding this sheepishness that has enabled him to be exploited up to this point and Plaza showing the fire that drives both of them to finally taking a stand. In one scene, Gina Gershon does steal the show, capturing the disconnected and snotty vibe of a business executive, having a condescending air about her that makes her impossible to look away from.
Emily the Criminal strikes a strong balance of social critique and crime thrills, echoing classic noir in theme and premise throughout, updating it for a modern scenario. Putting up barriers at every point where Emily could get off a criminal path and go straight, the film drives home the desperation and resignation that comes with her new career. All the while, she digs a hole so deep for herself she can never escape. Emily the Criminal may be about people doing bad things, but in emphasizing the societal forces that make crime into one’s only option to survive, it paints a brutal and fatalistic picture of our world.