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  • Writer's pictureMatt Conway

Emily the Criminal: Review

Emily the Criminal Synopsis: Down on her luck and saddled with debt, Emily (Aubrey Plaza) gets involved in a credit card scam that pulls her into the criminal underworld of Los Angeles, ultimately leading to deadly consequences.

After sinking into debt, Emily stumbles upon a high-paying day gig that requires a slight bending of the law. The one-time payout eventually leads Emily down the rabbit hole of Los Angeles’ underground crime scene in Emily the Criminal.

At first glance, the buzzy Sundance 2022 title from writer/director John Patton Ford may seemingly derive from the cloth of ordinary true crime narratives. Thankfully, the final product ingeniously eschews those traditions at every turn. Ford and an incendiary lead performance from Aubrey Plaza elevate Emily the Criminal into an urgent meditation on our survival of the fittest economy.

Where many first-time feature directors stumble out the gate, Ford crafts Criminal with exacting precision. His screenplay’s economical storytelling approach doesn’t strain itself in providing a bloated backstory, instead relaying just enough vivid details to entrench viewers in Emily’s gloomy worldview. It’s refreshing to see a film that brazenly tackles Hollywoodized mechanics with an eye for authenticity – even if the truths relayed expose uncomfortable realities about the world around us. Emily’s odyssey through broken workforce standards offers searing indictments on capitalism’s callous practices and the similarly dog-eat-dogs crime syndicate operating in its shadow.

Ford’s direction shares a similar vision in its pursuit of gritty textures. Framed with claustrophobic intimacy and an infusion of jagged movements, Emily the Criminal finds its voice in relaying the undercurrent of desperation motivating Emily’s every misdeed. Each frantic chase and pulse-pounding encounter relays uncomfortably brutality from the type of thrills most films welcomingly commercialize. The raw, survivalist edge akin to features like Uncut Gems and Shiva Baby adds frenzied energy that unrelenting spirals as the narrative builds momentum.

I don’t know if Ford’s aspirations would connect so well without Plaza’s adept abilities. The typically sardonic actress trades out her signature quick-wit for one of her most grounded characters to date. As Emily, Plaza forms a transfixing presence as she transforms into a hard-edged veteran at her unsanitary day job. Still, a deep pool of empathy lies under the surface of Emily’s actions. Plaza impressively elicits expressive vulnerabilities that only heighten the angst of each volatile shouting match and violent clash Emily endures.

Ford’s debut eventually stumbles into some first-time filmmaker falterings – particularly in its finale that wraps up in an unsatisfyingly tidy bow. Fortunately, the few misgivings never overcompensate the noteworthy triumphs Ford and Plaza achieve here. Emily the Criminal is a mean-and-lean thrill ride enhanced by the relevant undercurrent of its bleak worldview.


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