It’s hard to really blame Emily (Aubrey Plaza) for choosing a life of crime. A low-paid service gig brings nothing but stress. A seemingly inescapable student loan is gathering interest by the day. A couple of minor, years-back criminal charges have closed off a world of employment. It’s a familiar predicament that plagues many in America and even though first-time writer-director John Patton Ford might only show it in the broadest of strokes, it’s an effectively infuriating set-up.
When Emily is offered an opportunity for an extra income, she nervously inches down the rabbit hole. It starts off simple. She’s given a cloned credit card and has to buy a TV. She then takes it to her new bosses and gets paid $200. It’s easier than she anticipated and soon she’s doing it on the regular, edging closer to taskmaster Youcef (Theo Rossi) who slowly becomes more than her mentor. But how far is she willing to go?
Emily the Criminal is mostly as straightforward as its title, a punchy, pared-down little thriller about a woman rising in confidence as she falls deeper into a criminal underworld. Contemporary nods to gig economy aside, it’s a tale as old as time, of someone spurned by the system they once followed, that little voice telling them to stop gradually being silenced and while Patton Ford isn’t trying to excuse Emily, he’s keen to try to explain her. From the stark opening scene, as a job interview turns to mulch in front of her, we see not just a barely contained frustration but a simmering fury, and every time there’s another ignominy, no matter how tiny, it chips away, pushing her closer to a world free from the same rules that have kept her trapped.
There are some fantastically charged moments of suspense – Emily trying to buy a car and drive away before the bank is called, a genuinely jolting confrontation with a double-crossing client – and Patton Ford has a knack for making us sweat without relying on an over-egged score or over-stacked stakes. It’s a genre movie with its feet firmly on the ground, small in scale and tight in focus. Plaza, an actor with a history of bringing out her finest work at Sundance (from The Little Hours to Black Bear to a career-best turn in Ingrid Goes West), is incredibly engaging here, a rare dramatic role that demands only the tiniest moments of comedy. The script, which at times can be a little rushed, requires some major leaps for the character but she works hard to make us buy them, never urging us to agree with what she’s doing and how she’s doing it but never causing us to second-guess her. There’s also a crackling chemistry with Rossi even if some of his crime world plotting gets a little thin as the film hurtles toward a finale of no return.
If Patton Ford doesn’t quite stick the landing – a late-stage backstory reveal is pretty limp, the final scene a little underwhelming – the journey there is more than worth it, an on-form Plaza drawing us close even when he briefly loosens his grip. It’s an undeniably striking debut, slick and involving enough to have us curiously excited for whatever he decides to do next.