At the beginning of Emily The Criminal, the titular Emily is in fact, not a criminal. Not yet, anyway. That will inevitably change, obviously.
Emily is a restaurant delivery driver and in desperate need of cash. Her friend gives her a number to a guy who can hook her up with “dummy shopping”, which is essentially credit card fraud.
Before she knows it, Emily is well and truly ingrained in the dangerous criminal underworld. The question is, how far will she go for money?
Narratives like the one in Emily The Criminal aren’t anything new. It’s a twisted, dark take on the hero’s journey, in which the leading lady will be tested and eventually transform into the hero we want her to be. Instead of a hero, Emily somehow becomes a morally compromised criminal whom we still root for.
Maybe it’s because it’s hard not to root for Aubrey Plaza. She has also been a wickedly talented actress, often working on the outskirts of Hollywood, but we have seen her brilliance before in films like Ingrid Goes West and Black Bear.
Emily The Criminal, which as a film never reaches the highs of the films I just mentioned, feels like new ground for Plaza. It’s not a comedic role. She can’t rely on her timing or physical comedy. No, this requires her to command the screen in a way she hasn’t been allowed before. It’s not that her past roles have been bad or that she hasn’t shown nuance before. It’s a completely different challenge, and Plaza admirably tackles it head-on.
So, it’s a shame that nothing in the film matches her talent. Theo Rossi, best known for Sons of Anarchy, does well in the supporting role of the handler, Youcef, who introduces Emily to these criminal activities. The two characters inevitably strike up a relationship beyond business limits, but the romance feels stale.
There is an attempt to complicate the usual narrative by giving Youcef some motivations outside the illegal trade. Unfortunately, they’re never fleshed out properly, and the characters are thinly written. They only work thanks to the nuanced performances by Plaza and Rossi. Everyone else in the film fades into the background.
Writer-director John Patton Ford, who has only directed one short before this, shows just how green he is. There is some genius in Emily The Criminal; he’s clearly an actor’s director and there’s a great organic quality to the film visually, but it’s also clumsy and the pacing is off.
Emily The Criminal is at its very best when Ford stages insanely tense situations for Emily to be stuck in, such as trying to drive off with a new car before the seller realises the card was fake. These scenes are focused and thrilling, but as soon as Emily is out of there, that grip loosens and the film stalls. Emily The Criminal isn’t in any way bad, it’s just that Plaza is way too good and nothing reaches her level.
Emily The Criminal screens at the BFI London Film Festival on October 9.