Emily The Criminal could stand to be grittier but is held firmly fascinating by Aubrey Plaza’s finest acting.
Emily the Criminal (2022) Review By Mark McPherson
Published on December 1, 2022
Rating 3.5 /5
Emily is a highly relatable criminal. She has student debt, was arrested for assault, and can’t find a stable job to make rent while rents increase. She represents an increasingly aggravated sense of anxiety that an entire generation can identify with. An upper-middle-class audience would probably scoff at her situation but for anybody who has been struggling to live paycheck to paycheck, her dangerous actions are completely understandable.
Emily (Aubrey Plaza) works as a food delivery contractor with no benefits or leverage in her work. She interviews for better jobs but is constantly scrutinized for her background in deceptive interview tactics. She has a friend who tries to get her an assistant job but that proves to be a dead-end, leading to an incredibly tense stand-off of generations when she’s interviewed by an egotistical baby-boomer (Gina Gershon). With no other options, the only chance of paying off her debt is to go along with a criminal underworld scheme, managed by Youcef (Theo Rossi). The scheme starts small when Emily is tasked with using stolen credit cards to buy TVs. This crime earns her $200. The next job will pay $2000 but become increasingly risky with what she needs to purchase.
Of course, this is a route that is going to be rocky and with dangers. It isn’t too long before Emily finds herself getting into a fight, ending her crime with a bloody nose and bitter tone for Youcef. However, a bond soon forms between her and Youcef, where the two criminals connect in an intimate way when they feel there is no other path for them. Despite sticking it to the man, they’re still bound by higher powers that hold them back. You can feel the anger and desperation rise in them that you’re championing for them to take a wild stab at escaping everything and rip everybody off.
Plaza’s performance is stellar in this picture. She beautifully portrays this gritted soul wronged by capitalism that bubbles with fury for being so easily wronged. It’s also easier to root for her as she plays the same game that has wronged her. When she first starts working with Youcef, he informs the group taking on the job that this work is illegal but that it won’t hurt anybody and that you’ll make a lot of money. It’s a perfect encapsulation of how capitalism forces those desperate to just live to find any means of money, where legality is secondary to payment. Theo Rossi also gives a fine performance as a man conflicted about his future. He has big dreams and wants someone to share them with but fears the dangers of his work keep that paradise at bay.
The film gets really intense real quick. Aside from the tension of bills and interviews, Emily finds herself using pepper spray and tasers forcefully on her attackers. Violence breaks out in the form of car chases and shootouts with dangerous gangsters. Even the conversations between Emily and her intimidators are rather vicious. When she comes with Youcef to visit his mother, they’re approached by Youcef’s criminal brothers who make intimidating threats about their safety in between the matriarch serving them drinks. The facade of peace within these people is razor thin as cruelty and anger can be seen behind their forced smiles and feverish eyes.
Emily The Criminal could stand to be grittier but is held firmly fascinating by Aubrey Plaza’s finest acting. In terms of touching on the moral decay amid late-stage capitalism, the film doesn’t exactly present new ideas but rather a different level of empathy. The anger at such a system is enough to inspire one to fight and that’s quite literally what Emily does for most of the film. The ultimate conclusion is also a bittersweet conclusion, where the story doesn’t merely end when Emily escapes. This level of despair only ends when everybody gets out, a fight that is hard and not so easy as punching out shady individuals or shouting down morally-adrift bosses. But, wow, it is still pleasing to see it happen.
Mark has been a professional film critic for over five years and a film lover all his life.