From May 11th, 2016 – August 19th, 2018, there was a one-man Broadway show titled In & Of Itself in which actor/magician/trickster Derek DelGaudio first challenged his audience to pick a single word identifier for themselves to finish the phrase “I Am …” and then put on a show in which he dove into himself and, through illusion, made his audience realize that they are more than the single phrase they selected. The thing is, too often we see ourselves as only the one thing, not realizing that we can be so much more. Strangely, this also describes John Patton Ford’s debut feature Emily the Criminal, a dramatic thriller starring Aubrey Plaza (Black Bear) that focuses on what happens when society places one identifying marker on someone and never lets them forget it. In a career of singular performances, Emily the Criminal offers Plaza more than center stage, it offers an opportunity to have us see her unlike her roles in any film before: a tempest of disappointment, fury, and frightful calculation.
Despite being a talented artist, Emily (Plaza) can’t get a job beyond being a food delivery person as an independent contractor because she has a record. No one can see past that and will provide her the opportunity to rise to the level she knows she can meet. Drowning in student loans and desperate for cash, she agrees to be a dummy shopper for Youcef (Theo Rossi), taking on more and more gigs as the rush of the con rises and money starts to pile up. Soon Emily will have to decide who she is: an artist or a criminal?
From the moment the film begins, the audience is forced to make a choice as to whom they side with, whose perspective they agree with, and that decision will define how they feel about the rest of the film. We are tested just as Emily is, sitting in her interview for an office position that would lift her up and get her on a path out of debt and into the life she wants, and whether we think that test is fair matters. Whether we think Emily is in the right matters. Whether we think that the ends justify the means matters. For each moment in which we side with Emily, we, like her, are pushed toward an inevitable end and it’s an absolutely fucking thrill-ride. The script by Ford is simple, taking an average person and placing them in ever-escalating situations, except the twist is that there are many off-ramps for the journey Emily is on. She could take one at any point, tap out, and continue her fight for a more traditional route toward success and financial freedom. That she opts to stick things out speaks to her mettle, as much as it does the pressure release these quick cash schemes afford. Because Emily keeps making the choice to stay in, the script often subverts expectations, pushing on the gas, rather than the brake. This results in more than a few surprises, all of which Plaza handles with grace and guile.
Through her work in Black Bear (2020), Dirty Grandpa (2016), and Life After Beth (2014), Plaza has proven to be able to handle a myriad of genres. She’s been surly, sardonic, hyper-sexual, a ghoul, and she’s been hilarious. Emily feels like something else entirely; an opportunity to do character work that she absolutely disappears into. From the opening scene, Plaza looks and sounds different — the makeup giving her a more worried look, less clean and more natural, emblematic of a person under persistent stress; her vocal intonation being that of someone separate from the person she’s across from. In this case, we learn, Emily is from New Jersey and living in Los Angeles. This immediately puts her at a disadvantage, one might think, because she’s far from home. Instead, as the audience discovers, the disadvantage is ours, with Emily proving that to underestimate her may just be your undoing. Late in the film she refers to a moment where she didn’t take things far enough, thinking that, if she had gone further, she’d never have gotten in trouble in the first place. It’s in that moment that we realize what we suspect from the first scene: Emily is the kind of desperate you don’t want to cross because she’s willing to go as far as it takes.
Then there’s the undercurrent theme of the film, one of desperation born out of necessity. It’s because of this (and the performances from Plaza and Rossi) that the audience never sees them as grifters or con artists. They are survivors trying to game a system that has rigged everything else. In the press notes for the film, Ford mentions how he graduated school with $90k in debt, struggling to pay off the interest of the debt each month. This is a moment used in the film, one which, if you’re not aware, is true for most who owe: you don’t pay off the principle loan until the interest is gone. So, each month, unless you can quickly clear the interest, you may spend years or decades just getting out from under the interest. Imagine that you’ve been told that the only way to get a job, to build a career, is to get a college degree, but then the economy tanks or shifts and, suddenly, the investment you made in your future is worth little more than ink printed on the diploma. What would you do based on the burden, the constant stress, of knowing that you might never be free of that debt *and* never get to do what you dreamed of. It can cause you to make choices you never imagined you would and, frankly, having been there myself, it requires a specific type of person to be able to go where Emily does. Now, like Ford states, I too have never committed illegal acts to pay my bills, yet I can’t help but admire this journey of self-reclamation. Because that’s what Emily ultimately is. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be so invested in whether or not she gets away with her various crimes. This is the beating heart at the center of the film, her journey to discover who she is — an artist, a lover, a friend, a citizen, a student, an employee, a criminal — despite the shackles society has placed on her. To be true, society did place shackles on her by constantly reminding her of a mistake, one which follows her to every single opportunity to follow the straight and narrow. Does this new path make her somehow less pious? Strangely, no. In fact, there’s a strange heroism at its core, one which Plaza sells beautifully.
As a feature film debut, Emily the Criminal is quite the calling card. It centers a complex female lead, offers twists and turns throughout, eschews familiar tropes to uplift the natural and examine the philosophically complex, and constantly builds to a most satisfying conclusion. It’s no wonder that Plaza herself produced the film via her Evil Hag Productions company, seeing the absolute potential in what Ford planned to do. Emily the Criminal is less the morality story one might presume and, because of that, makes it memorable; decrying the subjugation of self to be a cog in a machine constantly trying to grind us all down. Steel yourself so, like Emily, you can steal yourself.
Screening during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.