Emily the Criminal Review: Aubrey Plaza Turns to a Life of Crime to Pay Student Loans in Career-Best Performance

Aubrey Plaza has never been better.

As a recent graduate myself, I often find myself pondering the things I’d do to make that debt go away. Whether it be taking more freelance jobs or constantly applying for steady, full-time jobs, I can’t say credit card fraud came to mind, but Aubrey Plaza’s new film, Emily the Criminal, is a cautionary tale about what desperate people do in desperate situations. 

Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is a simple girl; she just wants to make her art, paint, and travel the world. But she’s also down on her luck and being gatekept from getting a job due to her felony record. As a result, she works a dead-end catering job that is more or less a combination of Meals on Wheels and Instacart. Oh, and to top it all off, Emily is $70k in debt from her student loans. But on one fateful night, after her co-worker Javier (Bernardo Badillo) gives her a mysterious number as gratitude for taking a night shift; “I don’t usually work nights downtown,” says Emily, which sounds like famous last words. But this number introduces Emily into the world of “dummy shopping,” which is when you buy products with stolen credit cards and receive a cut. 

After her first job, which paid $200 flat, the jobs get bigger as she is instantly thrown into a situation where she’s buying a luxury car. Despite the job not going quite as smoothly as promised — including a bloodied nose — Emily goes with the “in a penny, in for a pound” mindset as she gets addicted to the thrill of this world. 

A still from Emily the Criminal. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment.

This is a damn good film that’s led by a damn good performance. Aubrey Plaza has done everything from comedy to horror — even nailing the motherly role in the 2019 Child’s Play reboot — but Emily the Criminal may be her best work yet. While the world is constantly kicking Emily while she’s down, she doesn’t lose her fight. The outbursts she has, whether it be over being tricked in a job interview, or taking ___ with a comment directed at her, Emily will stand up to anyone who opposes her, no matter their size or level of authority. That intensity is something you’ve seen from Plaza, even in her comedic role on Parks and Recreation, and it’s great to see it effectively used in Emily the Criminal

Because of the fact that Emily is constantly being pushed down by the world around her — something she even acknowledges in a monologue towards the end of the film — some may call this her “Joker origin story.” Once you see the film, you can certainly see where that comparison comes from — Emily is pushed to the limit and eventually takes matters into her own hands — but Emily the Criminal is so much more than a riff on that story. It’s truly about a woman that is going to extreme measures at her lowest point. At one point, her boss and the man who gets her into this business, Youcef (Theo Rossi), asks her if this is the only way she can make money. After a quick reply where she reiterated the question back to him, it becomes clear that the two aren’t so different after all. 

The score by Nathan Halpern enhances the overwhelming paranoia of the film and Plaza’s performance. Halpern’s score never completely takes over a scene (which is a compliment), but there are times when it can be suffocating, like a combination of the Uncut Gems and Blade Runner: 2049 scores, and you’ll begin feeling like the water is rising around you. 

A still from Emily the Criminal. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment.

You can sense that Emily the Criminal is a personal story for director John Patton Ford. Just with the way that student debt and Emily’s story are handled, I figured that he likely had some personal connection to that story. You can likely find his director’s statement out there somewhere, or my interview with the director, but it’s very clear from the fact that Emily just wants to get out of debt so she can make art that this is a personal story (if not a bit heavy-handed). But while that comment may sound like a critique, it’s actually admirable and appreciated that he was able to tell a story like this while also keeping it personal. 

Patton Ford also does a great job behind the camera. One scene that stands out is when Emily is completing her first purchase as a “dummy shopper.” Patton Ford finds a way to make a mundane action such as purchasing a TV stressful. We watch as the camera cuts between Emily, the cashier, and the pin pad as we all anxiously await the “transaction approved” message. I mean, as a former Instacart shopper myself, I could certainly relate to this moment. Who doesn’t hate when you’re waiting for your card to be approved as four elderly customers are waiting on you? But at least I knew that those cards were funded with real money. This scene of Emily doing this for the first time is unmatched in terms of how stressful the scene is. The later car purchase couldn’t even reach this level of intensity. It’s truly a great sequence that while you know the outcome — this happens relatively early in the film — is still effective. 

A still from Emily the Criminal. Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment.

The only glaring flaw in Emily the Criminal is that it occasionally loses focus on what the most intriguing part of the film is: Emily and her committing crimes. There’s a side plot that revolves around her relationship with Youcef that leads to a story that any fan of mob movies has seen before. I’ll spare you the specifics, but this should have been kept to a minimum. Yes, this plot does end up playing into the crescendo of the film, but a little less family and more robberies would have been appreciated. 

Emily the Criminal takes on what someone will do for survival much like Luzzu did last year, and both films are phenomenal. Come for Aubrey Plaza’s career-best performance, stay for a film about a woman that gets pulled so far into a world of crime that she can’t get out (as anyone who has seen The Godfather Part III would know, once you’re in, you can never leave). Emily the Criminal is a brilliant film that I immediately wanted to watch again once the credits rolled (physical media release, please!), and that’s a feeling I get as often as Emily feels regret for her actions. 

Rating: 87%

Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment will release Emily the Criminal on August 12

Andrew Korpan

Andrew Korpan

Film "critic" and entertainment journalist whose work has been featured in Above the Line, Below the Line, Collider, /Film and Coastal House Media.
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