Aubrey Plaza is an actress that I wish more directors saw dramatic potential in. She’s already established herself as a talented comedic performer, but Plaza has also aced serious material before. Her droll nature just works on both levels. So, getting the lead in a crime drama/thriller like Emily the Criminal was always going to have caught my eye. Playing as one of the more anticipated titles at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, it manages to give Plaza one of her best showcases to date. Pulpy and dark, but also always concerned with observing her character, it’s an enjoyable, if often nasty, pice of business.
Emily the Criminal could easily have been generic. It’s a credit to Plaza and the darkness/intensity that she brings here that it feels so fresh. No matter how down in the muck she lets Emily get, you’re still rooting for her to make it out unscathed. You may not want to hang out with this character, but you want to watch her navigate the criminal world.
For Emily (Plaza), life is hard, especially when it comes to getting a job. She has prior convictions on her record, bringing most job interviews to a screeching halt. With debt piling up and options limited, when a friend offers her the contact of someone with a quick way to make $200, she takes them up on the offer. It will prove to be a consequential one, to say the least.
Introduced to a credit card scam run by the entrepreneurial Youcef (Theo Rossi), Emily is initially not willing to participate. However, she gives it a shot and it goes off almost flawlessly. Youcef is impressed and offers her more work. As she continues to do bigger and bigger jobs, not only does she make more money, she gets caught up in the seedy underworld of small-time Los Angeles crime. All along, Emily and Youcef are growing closer.
Aubrey Plaza has never been as much of a badass as she is in Emily the Criminal. She makes the title character someone both out of their element and easily adaptable. You root for her and worry for her, but never doubt that she’s going to figure out something. Plaza gives Emily flaws, but also a compelling nature that prevents you from ever taking your eyes off of her. Theo Rossi provides some layers to what otherwise might have been a stock character. They even have some nice chemistry in their rare lighter moments. Supporting players include Jonathan Avigdori, Bernardo Badillo, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Gina Gershon in a cameo, and more.
Filmmaker John Patton Ford rightly saw this as a Plaza showcase. He keeps the focus on her, directing and writing with an eye towards the performance. It’s a solid work that should get him a bigger job in the near future. One can quibble with some of the pacing and a dragged out conclusion, but it’s also quite poetic in those moments as well, so even with that small issue, it largely earns its ending.
Emily the Criminal will thrill Aubrey Plaza fans, to be sure. It’s a showcase for her talents, all done in a style that should make this an easy sell to audiences. Even beyond those who love Plaza, this is quality cinema. It strikes a chord and really does land. When it finds a post-Sundance home, definitely keep an eye out for this flick!