“It’s only temporary, right?,” Emily (Aubrey Plaza) asks at one point in Emily the Criminal, and it’s a question that the character has clearly been asking for too long. The DUI on her record was only supposed to be a temporary problem. The thousands of dollars she accrued in debts seemed like it would be a temporary issue. The food delivery job that is wearing her down was a temporary way to make much-needed money. When Emily says something is temporary, she knows the truth: temporary can become a permanent issue.
With the world beating her down, Emily gets involved with a credit card scam, a quick way to make $200 in an hour, and the promise of more fast money appears to her. Emily rapidly goes down this rabbit hole of schemes and thefts, temporary situations that if she can escape on top can help her get out of her permanent problems.
Written and directed by first-time filmmaker John Patton Ford, Emily the Criminal is a tightly crafted indie thriller, as Ford puts Emily in increasingly dangerous situations with escalating stakes. As Emily sees the opportunities in her ways, she learns from her mistakes, grows from her failures, and doesn’t let anything get in her way. The world has beaten her down so much, it’s time for Emily to do some of the beating for once.
Emily the Criminal works because of a remarkable performance by Plaza, whose intensity and world-weariness make her someone not to be messed with. Even when she looks to be losing in whatever situation she’s stuck in, it always seems like her dogged attempts to win will bring her out on top once more. This type of ferocity and strength is a great tone for Plaza, and it’s hard not to get caught up in her endeavor to simply stay afloat. Plaza has always been a compelling actor, but this is a whole new side to her that we’ve never seen before, and might arguably be her best performance so far.
Emily is helped by Youcef (Theo Rossi), who introduces her to these schemes and helps Emily get on her feet with her own scams. Plaza and Rossi are excellent together, but as Emily starts to realize that Youcef’s ambitions might not be achievable, Plaza shows the slightest hints of disappointment, as if Youcef offered her a way to escape, and yet again, he could just be another dead end in her life.
But Ford makes Emily the Criminal more than just a smart, small-scale thriller, as he shows just how hard it is to survive in the so-called “land of opportunity.” Emily is defined by the mistakes in her past, much to her chagrin, and any time she thinks she might have a way forward, the world beats her down. She loses hours at her one source of steady income, or a potentially great job opportunity falls through. Yet while in the past, Emily’s mistakes have become what people focus on and judge her by, in her criminal enterprise, it’s her mistakes and her growth from those mistakes that makes her even more dangerous. Finally, Emily has control over her faults and only grows powerful from her errors.
Within his extremely tense and almost claustrophobic thriller, Ford also shows how easily the world can beat a person down to believe such extreme actions are almost necessary. As a food delivery driver, Emily is plagued by a terrible boss who will cut her hours without warning, and barely enough money to get by, especially with her debts looming over her. Ford does an excellent job of showing the helplessness inherent for many people attempting to make ends meet, which brings a very palpable and understandable fear to Emily the Criminal.
But maybe most impressive about Emily the Criminal is Ford’s ability to make the stakes of this film feel so massive, despite being made on a smaller budget. As the tension grows throughout Emily the Criminal, it’s easy to forget that this was clearly made with restrictions. Part of that is the way that Ford builds the uneasiness of Emily’s story, but also through Plaza’s intimidating, yet scared performance. Emily the Criminal is an excellent example of how to make an effective thriller on a smaller scale.