Movies · Reviews

‘Emily the Criminal’ Teaches a Low-Key Masterclass in Tension

Aubrey Plaza shines in a criminally adjacent Los Angeles.
Aubrey Plaza in Emily The Criminal
Low Spark Films
By  · Published on January 28th, 2022

This review of John Patton Ford’s Emily the Criminal is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance tab.

Life can be tough, but no matter how difficult things get there are always choices to be made. Sometimes those options may seem limited, but the smart play is to follow your heart, trust your gut, and avoid dangerous and illegal situations. But other times? Well, sometimes you gotta say “what the fuck” and make your move. It brings freedom, freedom brings opportunity, and opportunity makes your future. That’s right, the title character from Emily the Criminal is taking life lessons from Risky Business‘ Miles Dalby. Buckle up, we’re going for a ride.

Emily (Aubrey Plaza) isn’t having the best of lives. She’s $70k in debt, working a thankless job as a food delivery agent thanks to the difficulties of job-searching with a felony conviction, and barely staying afloat in the City of Angels. She jumps at the chance for some quick money only to discover it requires an illegal act, and facing financial pressures from all sides, she returns the next day for more. It leads to violence, but the payout is irresistible, and soon she’s doubling down on a money-making scheme that will either solve her money problems for good or land her in jail. Or, and this is a very real possibility, it might just leave her dead.

Writer/director John Patton Ford‘s feature debut is a tense little thriller that works as a condemnation of a capitalist system gone awry while also delivering suspense, anxiety, and some engaging character beats. The beating heart of Emily the Criminal, though, is Plaza. Her years spent perfecting a finely-honed deadpan delivery for laughs gives Emily a dangerous infusion of uncertainty. It’s still funny at times, but the bulk of the film puts Emily on a razor’s edge, one misstep away from disaster, and watching Plaza navigate that path is exhilarating.

The film and story itself are fairly straightforward, and while comparisons to Uncut Gems should be expected the degree of nuance here is minimal by comparison. That’s not a criticism, though, as what drives Emily is far more relatable for it. Most viewers will recognize the burden of student loans, a high cost of living, and the rigged system we call daily living — and it’s enough to make Emily an antihero worth cheering for. Playing fast and loose as a con artist is one thing, but her world soon escalates to include violence with on both the receiving and giving end.

And we’re still cheering for her.

Emily the Criminal presents something of an evolution for Emily, and the journey sees her making the occasional misstep. Rather than yell at the screen, though, about poor writing the choices feel both wholly natural and in step with the character. She’s learning — and she’s a very, very fast learner — and a handful of scenes use this to ratchet up both the thrills and the tension. There are ticking clock sequences, one quite literal, and the film’s energy (aided by composer Nathan Halpern and editor Harrison Atkins) dips only as deception before ramping back up again.

Supporting players are mostly there and gone, but Theo Rossi does great work as Youcef, the scammer who gets Emily into the game before she gets him into bed. We see glimpses of his own ambitions and pains, and he offers a compelling counterbalance to Emily’s own. Things come to a head, and choices are made, and there’s a real weight to what unfolds.

Still, though, it’s Plaza working tirelessly as the glue holding it all together in Emily the Criminal. She cut her teeth on straight comedy fare like Parks and Recreation, but recent years have seen her make exciting moves with challenging characters and roles in shows and films like Legion, Ingrid Goes West, Black Bear, and more. The darker the world the more she fits as her eyes offer a constant warning to anyone who thinks they can fuck with her. They reveal everything even as they reveal nothing — her next move may be a cutting remark or an actual blow to your head. It’s invigorating to watch.

As mentioned, Emily the Criminal‘s narrative can be construed as fairly limited as far as A to Z thriller scenarios go, but Emily’s journey never feels minimized. Her problems are tangible and relatable, and her solutions are… not. She’s us, but she’s also who we sometimes wish we could be, albeit with less bloodshed.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.