Review: ‘Emily the Criminal,’ starring Aubrey Plaza

August 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Aubrey Plaza in “Emily the Criminal” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment)

“Emily the Criminal”

Directed by John Patton Ford

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and Mexico, the dramatic film “Emily the Criminal” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Latin, white, Asian and a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman, who works at a low-paying job for a food delivery company and is heavily in debt, turns to a secret life of crime to pay off her debts. 

Culture Audience: “Emily the Criminal” will appeal primarily to people are are fans of star Aubrey Plaza and well-acted movies about desperate people who do desperate things.

Aubrey Plaza and Theo Rossi in “Emily the Criminal” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment)

More than being typical crime caper, “Emily the Criminal” is also a scathing portrayal of getting trapped in gig economy work and student loan debt. Aubrey Plaza gives an intense and memorable performance in this suspense-filled drama that might leave some viewers divided about how the movie ends. “Emily the Criminal” doesn’t pass judgment on the people involved in the criminal activities that are depicted in the movie. Instead, “Emily the Criminal” puts a spotlight on why some people commit these desperate acts in the first place.

Written and directed by John Patton Ford, “Emily the Criminal” is Ford’s first feature film, and the movie had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. The movie’s protagonist and namesake is Emily Benetto (played by Plaza), who is in almost every scene in the movie. Emily, who is in her 30s, lives in Los Angeles and is a bachelorette with no children. “Emily the Criminal” opens with a scene of Emily being interviewed for a job in an office at an unnamed medical company. Within the first minute, it’s obvious that things aren’t going well for Emily in the interview.

The interviewer (a man who is not seen on camera) informs Emily that a full background check was done on her before the interview. Emily admits that she has a DUI (driving under the influence) arrest on her record. She says the DUI was a mistake on her part, and the incident happened when she drove a drunk friend home from a concert. The interviewer then mentions that the background check also revealed that Emily was convicted in 2016 of assault, which she does not deny either.

The interviewer then tells Emily in a very condescending manner: “This is a very important job. You’d be handling important medical files.” At this point, Emily knows she’s not getting hired at this place. She snaps at the interviewer: “Fuck you! I don’t want this job!” And then she quickly leaves the office in a huff.

Why is Emily looking for a job? She has student loan debt totaling about $70,000. And she currently works as a delivery person for a company that’s similar to Uber Eats or DoorDash. It’s the type of job where the delivery employees are considered independent contractors, and are therefore not entitled to full-time staff benefits, such as health insurance or a retirement plan, even if they work at least 40 hours a week.

It’s also an example of “gig economy” work, which is the term for any work that relies heavily on independent contractors or freelancers. Worker turnover is high in these types of jobs, because the salaries are usually low, the jobs are short-term, and the workers have to pay for certain job-related expenses that would be covered by the company if the workers were full-time staff employees. Gig economy workers are almost never represented by unions.

Emily is barely making enough money to pay her other bills that are not related to her student loan debt. She currently lives with two roommates, who stay out of Emily’s personal life, and she stays out of theirs. It’s revealed later in the movie that Emily went to a prestigious liberal arts university and majored in art (her specialty is painting portraits), but she hasn’t able to find any work as an artist. Emily feels bitter and hopeless about her situation.

One day, a co-worker named Javier Santos (played by Bernardo Badillo) asks Emily on short notice to cover a delivery shift for him. It’s a work shift that Emily is reluctant to take because it’s in downtown Los Angeles at night, which can be unsafe. But she needs the money, so she takes the shift.

Javier is aware that Emily is having financial problems because he says that he can hook her up for a “dummy shopper” job that would pay her $200. He gives her a phone number to text for more information. An anonymous person replies that she can make $200 an hour for this job and gives her an address to go to the next morning if she wants more details.

The night before she goes to this mystery job, Emily goes to a bar to hang out with her talkative and extroverted friend Liz (played by Megalyn Echikunwoke), who works as a photo editor at a fashion magazine. Liz and Emily know each other because they went to the same high school in their hometown of Newark, New Jersey. Emily is embarrassed that her art career is going nowhere, while Liz is thriving in her chosen profession.

Emily swallows her pride and tells Liz that she desperately needs a job, and if she can’t find one, she’ll probably have to move back to New Jersey to live with her stepfather. There’s some unspoken history in this conversation implying that Emily doesn’t like her stepfather, and moving back in with him would be a very unwelcome last resort for Emily, who is an only child. Emily’s mother is apparently deceased.

Liz is sympathetic to Emily’s plight and tells her that she will inquire about any openings at Liz’s place of work and recommend Emily for any job that fits Emily’s qualifications. Liz is confident that something will work out because Liz says that her boss Alice (played by Gina Gershon) admires Liz. Emily and Liz then do cocaine in the bar’s restroom and enjoy the rest of their time in the bar. Later in the movie, Liz helps set up a job interview for Emily at the place where Liz works. It leads to one of the best scenes in the movie in showing how Emily reacts when things don’t sit well with her.

Emily might be desperate, but she’s no pushover, and she hates it when people try to take advantage of her. Her assault record indicates that she will get into physical conflicts. The details of why she was arrested for assault are left purposely vague in the movie, which keeps people guessing on how much of a “bad girl” Emily is willing to be to get what she wants.

Out of curiosity and with nothing to lose, Emily goes to the address of the mystery job. It’s at a warehouse-styled building, where she is immediately asked to hand over her driver’s license. The license is then photocopied and given back to her. She is then sent to a room, where there are about 20 other people gathered.

The leader of this group interview is named Youcef (played by Theo Rossi), who tells all of these job applicants up front that the job they would be expected to do is illegal. He says that if anyone has a problem with doing something illegal, they should leave immediately. Some people leave, but Emily decides to stay and hear more.

Youcef then explains that the job is to take stolen credit card information that’s on forged credit cards, go to stores to purchase big-screen TVs with these forged credit cards, and then hand over the TVs to the people working for his shady operation at a pre-determined drop-off location. The workers (who are responsible for whatever cars they use in these thefts) are told that they have to leave the store in eight minutes or less after making the purchase, which is the approximate time needed before the store finds out that the credit card is fraudulent. The pay is $200 a hour for this job. A worker cannot go to the same store twice.

It’s already revealed in the movie’s title and in the movie’s trailer that Emily ends up working for this criminal operation. Emily soon finds out that during the time that this orientation meeting was taking place with the potential workers, her driver’s license photo that was copied when she arrived was turned into a fake photo ID with someone else’s name on it. It’s the photo ID that she uses to get the TVs with the fraudulent credit cards. Later, Emily finds out that she can make $2,000 a day from this operation if she gets involved in actually forging credit cards by using the necessary equipment.

At first, Emily thinks it’s just an easy way to make money, but what she ends up going through is intense and harrowing. Complicating matters, Emily and Youcef have a growing attraction to each other. It’s a relationship where their loyalty to each other will be tested. In this operation, Youcef reports to his cousin Khalil (played by Jonathan Avigdori), who is a ruthless thug who doesn’t hesitate to get violent.

One of the most accurate things about “Emily the Criminal” is how it shows that committing crimes can be addicting for criminals. Many thieves say that it’s often not about the money but the adrenaline rush of committing a crime and getting away with it. Emily’s criminal record is a sign that she’s no stranger to getting in trouble with the law. However, viewers will get the sense that her involvement in this group of thieves has a lot to do with getting back at a system that punishes her for having a criminal record when she’s trying to find honest work.

“Emily the Criminal” is gripping not just because of the story but also because of Plaza’s fascinating performance. There’s nothing trite or stereotypical about it. Emily is not a hero, but Plaza gives a nuanced performance indicating that not everything about Emily is a villain either. From Emily’s perspective, life is not completely black and white. She’s someone who prefers to think of life of being in shades of grey.

Some viewers might not like how the movie doesn’t reveal too much about Emily’s background to explain why she makes the decisions that she does. However, it’s ultimately a wise choice to keep her background vague, because the point of the movie is to explain who Emily is now (not who she was in the past), and that she made these decisions of her own free will and under terrible financial strain. Her life of crime is not something that can be blamed on a bad childhood or someone in her life who led her astray. On a wider level, the lack of background information about Emily is the movie’s way of saying that the circumstances that led to her choosing this life of crime could happen to a lot of people of any background who find themselves in dire financial situations.

“Emily the Criminal” is not a perfect movie, since the last third of the film seems to cram in a lot of problems for Emily in a way that looks a bit too contrived. However, writer/director Ford has a knack for intriguing storytelling, and he made very good casting decisions with this movie. “Emily the Criminal” does not make Emily’s choices look glamorous, but it is an effective story in showing how this unhappy and restless person has to come to terms with who she really is and what type of life she really wants to have.

Roadside Attractions and Vertical Entertainment will release “Emily the Criminal” in select U.S. cinemas on August 12, 2022. The movie is available to rent on DirecTV, as of August 30, 2022. DirecTV has exclusive rental rights for a limited time.

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