It’s easy to rail against the broken system that persists in breaking people. But it’s important to remember that the system isn’t broken; it works strictly as intended. We like to think America is the land of the free and the land of opportunities. But the abundant opportunities are merely designed to keep us from being free.
John Patton Ford’s Emily the Criminal is an intimate portrait of a woman worn down by capitalism and burdened by her past mistakes. Refreshingly, the script, also by Ford, allows Emily, played to phenomenal perfection by Aubrey Plaza, to be flawed. Emily is neither a saint nor always makes the right choices.
But both Ford and Plaza allow Emily’s breathtaking impulsivity to propel the film forward. It is not an action-packed movie, but there were many moments where I held my breath, clasped my hands in anxious suspense, and found myself, quite literally, on the edge of my seat.
I could not take my eyes off of Plaza. Her Emily is almost a tragic figure. Despite how much she fights it, it feels like her destiny is all but written for her by others. Plaza’s face is an ocean of expression, her eyes, and mouth capable of hinting at the turbulent undercurrent of emotion beneath the surface. Her restraint makes her moments of explosive rage or sadness so captivating. She’s like a boiler on the verge of erupting.
Emily the Criminal examines how the system acts as a crucible, creating criminals. Saddled with a DUI and an assault charge, Emily struggles to find a job. She is either viewed with suspicion or treated as if she has not already paid for her “crimes.” On top of that is her ever-mounting staggering student loan debt that she incurred when she was forced to quit school to take care of her grandmother.
Ford wisely never shows us what Emily did. Instead, Emily tells us what happened, and sometimes it is clear she is lying or, at the very least, not telling us everything. Such as the opening scene with the always-fantastic John Billingsley. An actor who has perfected the voice of a bureaucrat, a mixture of officious condescension and removed objectivity. He tells Emily to tell him what happened, as they do not have access to her arrest record.
She tells him. He then reveals that he lied and pulls out her arrest record. Emily lashes out because she feels like she’s been lied to and tricked. Yes, she should have told the truth, but I ask you to consider two things. Would you have? We live in a world where felons with an arrest record are constantly reminded and punished for it. I would also point out that after witnessing the protests of BLM and seeing the countless stories then and now of officers flat-out lying and embellishing events in the record.
Is it not also possible that Emily is doing what we all do and telling a half-truth? Akira Kurosawa’s Rashamon, after all, tells us that we are incapable of being honest about ourselves. It’s not just me asking this; the movie is also asking us this.
Jeff Bierman’s camera is wonderfully voyeuristic, making us feel like we are peering into Emily’s life. Ford and Bierman use the camera as a tool for observation but never as an objective one. Instead, the camera placement forces us to share in Emily’s headspace. From a first-time director, Emily the Criminal is an emotional, technically precise, and grounded work.
Soon, Emily is given a number to text by a co-worker. It’s meant as a favor since she’s covering his shift at the low-paying food delivery service. The number leads her to an underground credit card fraud ring run by the charismatic and mysterious Youcef, played by the equally charismatic and handsome Theo Rossi.
Rossi and Plaza are explosive together. From the moment they first lay eyes on each other, we can feel the heat in the room rise a few degrees. The couple seems drawn to each other, perhaps sensing a kinship. Both yearn for a life of freedom in which they aren’t doing what they are doing now.
Emily has options. Her best friend, Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke), offers to try and get her a job after hearing Emily may have to move back to Newark. They are old friends, they went to art school together, and her cushy job at an upstart fashion company is hiring.
Meanwhile, Youcef and Emily see more and more of each other, with Emily inviting him to one of Liza’party to pretend to be her boyfriend. Afterward, the two have a rough and dirty intimate encounter in a back alley. Ford and his editor Harrison Atkins compose the scene with quick cuts and focuses on the hands as they roam each other’s bodies. Both Emily and Youcef keep their clothes on; however, the sexual tension is palpable.
It has been ever since Youcef showed Emily how to make fake credit cards. If nothing else, Ford is to be applauded for how erotically charged he makes a scene of seemingly mundane activities such as learning how to print credit cards.
The heat of the alley sex scene gives way to the couple lying in bed, with Bierman’s camera placed at her bedside table, Emily’s bare back taking up the frame. It is the cinematic equivalent of smoking a cigarette afterward.
Soon, Youcef begins teaching Emily how to run her own credit card fraud. Part of the fascination of Emily the Criminal is seeing how each decision Emily makes pulls her in deeper and deeper. Yet, at the same time, her choices all but dictate that she make those decisions; they are the only ones that seem to be getting her anywhere.
Her manager at her legitimate job tells her that he’s cutting her lunch shifts. Emily tries to fight back and tells him he can’t do that. “Are you an employee? No, you’re an independent contractor. So quit talking like you got rights and go back to work.”
Contrast to how Rossi’s Youcef talks to her. Gentle, soft, and always with the option of letting her say no. He even tells her upfront that what they are doing is illegal. “You will not be hurting anyone. No one will hurt you. But it is against the law.”
Rossi as Youcef is a simmering fire. The man is a movie star, as is Plaza, which is why their scenes together feel so vibrant. How he looks at Plaza’s Emily is a movie all its own. Rossi moves and talks with vulnerable confidence that makes it impossible not to want to see or hear what he says next.
Emily the Criminal is the type of debut that shuns flashy technique and relies on pure craft. Bierman’s intimate camerawork, combined with Ford’s ear for dialogue, sounds naturalistic, and the way he allows his characters to grow and blossom into something resembling real human beings. In the middle of all this is an understanding of our time.
Ford also shows a knack for casting. Apart from Billingsley, Gina Gershon has a small part as Liz’a boss. The scene is brilliant as it perfectly illustrates how generational biases can distort the realities of our modern world. How demand for respect and common sense fairness can be seen as being spoiled by people who were not given those things.
The ending of Emily the Criminal is perfect. Sitting on the beach, the raging storm on the horizon, Plaza’s face is a captivating landscape. The realization that she hasn’t bought her freedom; she’s rented it.
Images courtesy of Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions
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