Capitalism at once demands ruthlessness and grovelling servitude. Success is defined by lying, manipulation, skirting the edges of what’s acceptable within the word of law rather than the spirit, and a willingness to slide the knife into your friends’ side the second that an opportunity to improve your standing presents itself.
At the same time, you’re expected to swallow almighty amounts of shit without hesitation, work without pay for half-a-year to get a sniff at the possibility of maybe being paid (dependent on performance), never question the whims and decisions of an employer who demands you be truthful with them whilst they refuse to offer you the same courtesy, all whilst being lectured about what a “great opportunity” this all is and how you’re too “soft” and “entitled” compared to what they went through growing up. And that’s without even bringing the gig economy into the equation, a rights-less hellscape exacerbating capitalism’s inherent exploitation even further and turning everyone on all levels into users.
Arguably the two most triggering, tense, and infuriating scenes of John Patton Ford’s debut thriller Emily the Criminal have nothing to do with the credit card fraud that Emily Benetto (Aubrey Plaza) falls into as seemingly the only means available to her for paying off student debt. Rather, they’re the ones that sit Emily down at a job interview and proceed to pull out every single trick in the book of shithouse employers one after another.
Claiming to be a “family”. Asking for transparency about Emily’s criminal past – she was charged for aggravated assault, naturally not helping her situation – and insisting it’s not a problem only to immediately make it one. Repeated mentions about how even making it to the interview stage is a “privilege”. Indulging in blatant hypocrisy about how they were “the only woman in the room” growing up yet refusing to make the path they supposedly blazed any easier for a new generation of women, instead resorting to bullshit claims of Emily being “coddled” when challenged.
Much like the rest of the movie, Ford films these scenes with an uncomfortable intimacy. The opening interview predominately keeps to the same low-angled medium-close-up on Emily’s face, sat on the opposite side of the desk, smiling politely but also tangibly bristling at every micro-aggression put forward by the interviewer (whose own face we only start seeing once the interview has gone irrevocably sideways).
It’s framed more like an interrogation which, for someone with no other options who needs a stable job in order to merely survive, is kinda what it is. Few cinematic moments in recent memory are as instantly relatable and understandable in their frustration as when Emily is presented with the question “Why do you want this job?”. Even fewer are as fleetingly cathartic as when she storms out whilst giving him the truthful answer, “Because I have $70,000 of student debt”.
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So, yeah, doesn’t take a whole lot for Emily to, upon receiving their number from a Not-Postmates colleague as thanks for covering his shift, be tempted by Youcef (Theo Rossi) and his cousin Khalil’s (Jonathan Avigdori) credit fraud operation. The particulars of the scam are dealt with in broad strokes; Ford’s more interested in how it epitomises capitalism in perhaps its purest form.
The bullish confidence required to cleanly get in and out with the goods, the wilful ability to exploit others without shame through both stolen info and upselling costs, having that ‘killer instinct’ to stab colleagues and competitors alike in the back at the drop of a hat before they get the idea to do it to you first. Everyone uses everyone, that’s what our societal system unconsciously trains us to do; the criminal world is at least upfront about it.
Accordingly, Emily the Criminal is a seedy-looking film. Not from an excess of dirt and grime or other such simplistic signifiers, but rather from Ford and cinematographer Jeff Bierman’s tightly-following camerawork. Sets aren’t glitzy or rundown, but the harsh lighting and attachment of the camera in near-perpetual close-up – almost always on Emily, her little butterfly tattoo behind her right ear deserves its own credit – robs any aspirational or romanticised angle from the story whilst also rarely outright judging. Emily has the traces of Michael Mann in how unmistakable of an L.A. movie it is; in look and feel, of course, but also in its depiction of desperate people forced further down this only path available to them due to circumstances beyond their control and how they gradually realise it to be something they’re really good at.
This is where Plaza’s performance takes over. Not to say that the rest of Ford’s movie isn’t also pulling its weight to enhance the work of its star – in particular, Amanda Wing Ying Lee’s costume choices do an outstanding job of emphasising Emily’s discomfort and ill-fitting presence in corporate offices and the constrained stress-test of zero-hours food delivery. But I doubt that Emily would be anywhere near as effective a movie without Plaza’s outstanding lead turn.
She nails the desperation and pride in Emily that’d drive her to Youcef’s scam in the first place, somebody who can play the game up to a point but also is sure enough of her self-worth to be incapable of not biting back when pushed too far, for good and ill. Her body language in scenarios where she’s on the back-foot, exploitative shift managers bragging about how she has no rights as an independent contractor or fences trying to play hardball on price negotiations, wordlessly communicates to the viewer her vulnerability within this system but also, crucially, her resilience and efforts to scan all potential angles for the slightest bit of control.
Such a physical performance is what manages to elevate the growing romance subplot between Emily and Youcef which threatens to overtake the second half of the movie. On paper, and with Rossi’s performance, one can read their growing intimacy as just a straightforward ‘kindred spirits realising their connection’ romance. Which isn’t entirely a shade on Rossi; in fact, his earnest and charming turn provides a strong base to make her complex take on the same relationship that much more interesting.
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With Plaza, though, that earnestness is somewhat subverted as it looks like Emily’s using Youcef to further her own standing in their criminal arrangement, consciously or unconsciously. Whereas Youcef’s charm that initially scans as predatorily manipulative gives way to a genuine emotional connection, Emily seems to go on the exact opposite journey as she starts telling him more and more what he needs to hear so that she can gain access to more credit accounts or shop routes or pushing Youcef to retaliate when he gets fucked over.
Some of this is there in the screenplay, but Plaza shines a much brighter light on it and keeps the movie from getting bogged down in its middle-third by adding that acidic tinge which takes over fully by the finale. Capitalism teaches us to sell everyone down-river when it best conveniences ourselves. Everyone uses everyone else, that’s what the system insists is the only way to survive. Emily the Criminal is unsparing in its depiction of that fact, and the results are compelling from the first frame to its full-circle last.
Emily the Criminal is out now on DVD and Blu-ray from Universal Home Entertainment. There are no additional features besides the theatrical trailer.