Thanks to a potent performance by Aubrey Plaza, Emily the Criminal packs a punch you won’t see coming. Written and directed by newcomer John Patton Ford, this taut thriller might feel like a Sundance indie but it’s got the heart of a 70’s character study. Plaza, best known for her sardonic persona in Parks and Recreation and a slew of indie comedies, discards the deadpan wit that put her on the map, taking on the titular character with such heartfelt grit, you can’t help but empathize with her, even as she makes some terrible choices.
Emily is a typical millennial from New Jersey who lives in Los Angeles. Working for a catering company while struggling to pay off exorbitant student debt, she seems to be scaling a mountain which has no end in sight. In the opening, she interviews for a higher-paying job but gets turned down due to a spotty criminal record that includes a DUI and an assault charge. While most films these days would hold Emily accountable for her misdeeds and force her to atone for two hours, Ford isn’t interested in condemning his characters as much as trying to understand the world they live in. He holds a mirror up to society as much as he does the people who live in it, and he doesn’t let either off the hook.
You might not always like Emily and you might even feel the urge to judge her– she’s messy, complex and seems ready to lash out like a rattlesnake at times. The former art student has goals and dreams and every night she sketches on a notepad while repressing the knowledge that her current situation is simply not sustainable. There’s probably not a young adult in the world who won’t relate to her predicament.
One day, a co-worker gives her a tip about a way to make an easy $200. Desperate, Emily attends a meeting where a suave man named Youcef (a fantastic Theo Rossi) runs an underground credit-card scheme. Ford did his research on how such an enterprise works because the movie exposes all its dirty details, which are fascinating. Tasked with purchasing expensive televisions in chain stores then bringing them to Yousef and his roughneck cousins to sell on the black market, Emily soon graduates to making fake credit cards and selling televisions from the back of her car. Under Youcef’s gentle mentorship, a chemistry develops which blossoms into an intriguing romance. Then circumstances spin out of control and Emily finds herself waist-deep in a crime syndicate which could get her killed.
There are several nerve-wrecking moments that are reminiscent of some of the great crime films of the past few decades. Michael Mann and The Safdie Brothers would be impressed with Ford’s ability to balance action, social commentary, and character analysis in the same film, and on such a meager budget. With director of photography Jeff Bierman, Ford frames everything with an even-keeled handheld camera as we follow Emily through a blistering, sun-bleached Los Angeles, which feels both desolate and suffocating. At one moment we’re stuck in a throng of people on Hollywood Boulevard, the next we’re lost in a strange residential area where barking dogs and car alarms resound in the distance. This movie knows Los Angeles and its distinct undercurrent of paranoia and menace.
The soundtrack is practically nonexistent, and the photography is grounded in a day-to-day reality. Yet Ford has a distinct flair and panache that surpasses the usual Sundance, documentary-style drama. He’s William Friedkin (The French Connection) and Gus Van Sant (Drugstore Cowboy) rolled into one. In fact, there’s a car chase you wish went on a little longer, but since it’s so emotionally frayed and disturbing, you’re relieved when it’s over. That’s the kind of unnerving effect this movie has. And it never lets up.
There isn’t a moment you don’t feel Plaza’s angst and the unpredictability of the story wafts off the screen. Exhibiting the same torment in her comedic roles, the actress seems to thrive on playing characters who don’t feel a part of anything as they watch the world pass by from the wings. You wish her character gave into her better instincts, but at one point you realize, these are her instincts (hence, the title of the movie). Ultimately, Ford forces us to ask the question: “What is a criminal?” The nascent filmmaker exposes the hypocrisy of a failing system, even as he shines a light on his heroine’s weaknesses.
The best crime films have an ingredient most filmmakers struggle with: empathy. You can see it in Mann’s safecracker (played by the late James Caan) in Thief or Dustin Hoffman’s twitchy ex-con in 1978’s Straight Time. The architects of these stories don’t distance themselves from their subjects, they understand their plight even as they set the stage for their destruction. By the end of this movie, you realize that Emily is not your enemy; she simply wants to have a normal life like the rest of us. Ford acknowledges that although we need to take personal responsibility for our actions, the broken system takes blame as well. This is not your usual indie fare; it’s a guileless indictment of the broken American dream and one of the best films of the year.
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