Audrey Plaza’s Emily always seems to be just one step away from the breaking point in writer/director John Patton Ford’s superb thriller “Emily the Criminal”. A talented graphic-designer who went to college, her career and life have been destroyed by a minor criminal incident in her distant past. This minor infraction excludes the possibility of Emily obtaining any regular employment. Every job interview is an exercise in humiliation. To get by, she works in the gig economy, slaving away for hours in a low-paying food-delivery service. And then, there is her $70,000 in student loans.
Emily’s First Purchase
So, who can blame her when she is offered the opportunity to make some extra cash? All she must do is purchase a computer or television at a department store using a fake credit card, and then return it to her new “employers”. For this she gets $200.
Director Ford beautifully handles Emily’s first “purchase”, pumping up the tension in true Hitchcock fashion until she arrives at the checkout counter and the seconds for the credit card to be authorized feel like a gut-wrenching eternity. He even has the audacity to punch us a second time in the parking lot, in a brilliantly funny throw-away, as Emily is wheeling her fraudulent purchase towards her car.
The Job Interview
It turns out that Emily is good at this criminal stuff, especially after she has upped her defense equipment from pepper spray to Taser and box-cutter. After another disastrous interview, where she snaps back at her condescending interviewer (great cameo by Gina Gershon), who thinks that Emily should be grateful for an unpaid internship, Emily decides to go further down the criminal rabbit hole. Coached by her boss Youcef (Theo Rossi) an immigrant who, like Emily, has had to make it in the United States with limited options, she graduates to more complex and more financially rewarding ventures. When their relationship segues from the professional to the romantic, it seems right and not just a plot device.
Always Believable, Always Sympathetic
Plaza’s performance is something to behold. All the nervous energy that she has shown in her quirky and comedic roles is now bursting out in a performance that is always true, always believable, and always sympathetic, no matter what the deed. And Ford’s masterful direction never falters. There are two sequences in particular – one where Emily is making a fraudulent car purchase as the clock ticks, the other, where she is robbed in her apartment – that are suspense cinema at its finest.
The film is also clearly mindful that Emily’s situation is the lot of so many people out there. The terrible injustices that are forced upon so many. All this anger comes through in both the film itself and Plaza’s magnificent creation.