The ‘Parks and Rec’ alum continues to impress with her dramatic work
Since the end of Parks and Recreation, Aubrey Plaza has stealthily built a resume as one of the most interesting actresses around. With Black Bear, Happiest Season, Ingrid Goes West, and FX’s Legion, Plaza has transcended the impression she first made as the caustically hilarious April Ludgate. She picks interesting films and roles to take on and pushes herself in exciting directions. That trajectory continues with Emily the Criminal, a slick and anxiety-inducing crime drama about a young woman who trades one parasitic way of life—working an honest job in late stage capitalist society—for another—running credit card scams. It’s a blistering bit of business that threatens to go off the rails at any moment, but Plaza’s performance holds everything together.
Plaza plays Emily, a young woman working for a catering company and struggling to get by. She has $70,000 in student debt and no real prospects to offer a way out. In exchange for covering someone’s shift, a coworker offers to hook Emily up with some easy work and fast cash. Faster than you can say “gig economy,” Emily is hustling stolen TVs and cars and chasing bigger and bigger paydays. She does this with the help of Youcef (Theo Rossi), a guy slightly higher up the criminal food chain but in no less a financially precarious situation than Emily. And so, we watch Emily navigate her way through increasingly more nerve-jangling situations.
Writer and director John Patton Ford’s script is a tightly-plotted pressure cooker. As Emily’s situations grow more outlandish, Ford keeps one eye focused on the circumstances Emily is fighting against. In the movie’s sharpest scene, Emily finds herself in a job interview for a position that feels like a lifeline, only to have the rug pulled out from under her: The job offer is actually for an unpaid internship, which the interviewer spins into a lecture about how Emily should embrace the chance to provide unpaid labor for a promotion that will likely never materialize.
Emily the Criminal is a rock-solid thriller and a cathartic anti-capitalist screed. What makes the social commentary really stick is the cynicism running through Emily’s actions and Ford’s script. When an early job leaves Emily with a bloody nose, hyperventilating on the side of the street, any sane person would cut bait. But Emily takes stock of her situation and prospects and asks for the next job. The film works as well as it does because Plaza’s performance is dripping in desperation and the sense that the character has nothing left to lose. This is a movie where every potential solution is a mirage, and any quick solution is actually a pit of quicksand. Emily may be a criminal, but what Emily the Criminal posits is that the line between criminals, law-abiding citizens, and just surviving is razor thing—if it exists at all.