On the occasion of their second meeting, Youcef (Theo Rossi) asks Emily (Aubrey Plaza) the question on everyone’s mind: “You can’t make money another way?” Emily, a one-time art student trapped in a series of dead-end jobs because of her criminal past and growing debt, is bruised and bleeding, breathless from pulling off a daring (and maybe even dumb) crime for Youcef, and can only fire back, “You can’t make another way?” Well, no, neither of them can, and in John Patton Ford’s tense and timely heist thriller, that realization pushes Plaza into her best performance yet.
As the eponymous antihero at the heart of Ford’s film — his feature debut after first earning accolades at Sundance over a decade ago for the lauded short “Patrol” — Plaza continues to build on her post-“Parks and Recreation” career with serious style. Thanks to turns in projects as varied as “Black Bear,” “Ingrid Goes West,” and “Happiest Season,” Plaza (who also produced Ford’s film, adding to a growing resume) has managed to turn her pitch-black sarcasm into something with real depth and nuance. You always know a Plaza performance will be good, but over the past few years, Plaza has seemed to make it a priority to surprise her audiences with just how good she is.
In “Emily the Criminal,” Plaza goes to her darkest territory to date, seamlessly blending the edges of an “unlikable” character with her own persona. She’s got an edge, but dammit if you can’t root for her. The problem with Emily: No one has rooted for her for so long, and it’s high time she start doing it for herself. Ford’s film opens with our girl already getting the crap kicked out of her, stone-faced in the middle of another (apparently) bad job interview with a corporate suit-and-tie who can’t see past Emily’s “permanent record” and actually seems to delight in calling out some lies. Emily may have done her time for a handful of infractions — the details of one is not disclosed until later in the film, putting a nice bow on the crazy direction she chooses — but no one who knows about them seems eager to forget them, including potential employers.
With a slightly brassy hairdo and a very credible Jersey accent, Emily is all bundled nerves. She’s ready to spring on any asshole interviewer who comes at her, but Plaza’s ragged breath and slightly shaking hands give her away. She’s got nothing — less than nothing, thanks to $70K in student debt for a degree she didn’t even get, and having nowhere to go has cut her to the quick. When her co-worker Javier (Bernardo Badillo) at a crappy catering job offers her a hot, money-making tip, Emily has no reason not to sniff it out.
Filmed in and around downtown Los Angeles — an area both bustling and run-down, brought to vibrant life in Ford’s film — “Emily the Criminal” soon finds its star traveling into deeper and scarier underground places. Javier’s tip leads her to a busy warehouse off the beaten path, drawn in by one question: “Do you want to make $200 in an hour?” Emily initially balks at the plan (credit card fraud) laid out by her alluring new handler Youcef, but the issue is not the possibility of another black mark on her record. She just wants to know if it will pan out.
Turns out, Youcef and his cousin Khalil’s (Jonathan Avigdori) operation is pretty sophisticated, and Emily has a knack. She impresses Youcef on her first gig enough to ask her back for a bigger one the next day; she proves her mettle in heart-pounding fashion. The film has drawn early comparisons to “Drive,” and while the downtown LA setting and pulsating score from Nathan Halpern fit, Ford and Plaza offer something a bit trickier. It’s also more satisfying, blending style with a timely message about the way capitalism beats down people just looking to make some honest cash, the way a criminal past can mark someone for life, the way it’s impossible to move past certain circumstances.
For better or worse, Emily is moving in a new direction. As her criminal enterprises get bolder, there seems to be no going back. But what is there to go back to? While Ford’s script gives Emily enough of a backstory (and friends like the lovely Megalyn Echikunwoke as her long-time pal Liz, who can’t quite bring Emily into her straitlaced orbit), the real action and evolution happens before our eyes. A scam gone nearly wrong forces Emily to get tougher; another that goes totally wrong inspires a violence she’d long thought dormant. As she and Youcef get closer and start planning for a future that might never come (Ford is many things as a writer, including pointedly pessimistic), “Emily the Criminal” moves toward a shocking, wholly necessary end.
No, Emily can’t make money another way, and as she gets deeper into this particular way Plaza’s performance only grows more nuanced, more compelling, more thrilling. Is she likable? Is she redeemable? Is she a hero? As Emily might ask, who gives a fuck? With a film and a star this in control of its pitch-black material, she’s not wrong. We’re just along for the ride, and wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Emily the Criminal” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.