‘Emily the Criminal’: It’s Really Fun to Watch Aubrey Plaza Breaking Bad

·6 min read
Roadside Attractions
Roadside Attractions

There was a liminal moment in history where the esoteric and the futuristic were at war with one another. I’m, of course, talking about when movie rental stores were on their way out and the Redbox machine in your local CVS or grocery store was the hottest spot in town on a Friday night.

Too often when standing at that little red kiosk, we’d be saddled with a weak selection of two or three new releases—already taken by a more proactive customer—and an assortment of indie movies and mid-to-low-budget, direct-to-DVD alternatives. But, occasionally, taking a chance on the leftovers would prove fruitful, introducing you to an unexpectedly smart and exciting new favorite.

If you’ve ever rummaged the far reaches of Redbox for residual entertainment, you’ll recognize Emily the Criminal. It’s a movie that you’ve seen before, a crime thriller cloaked in a slick disguise to make it a little more appealing than similar fare of scratched DVDs past. But there can be comfort in the familiar, and Emily the Criminal capitalizes on its unassuming nature with a gripping, secret-weapon performance from Aubrey Plaza in a role that feels scarily relatable.

In case you haven’t figured it out by now, Emily the Criminal stars Plaza as Emily, the criminal. Stuck in a dead-end contracted catering gig, Emily is in the midst of a desperate search for a new job, one that will allow her to actually make a dent in the tens of thousands of dollars that she owes in student loans that are quickly accruing interest. The only problem is that Emily already has a rap sheet. And while she has no problem copping to her misdemeanor DUI and felony aggravated assault, her contentious personality keeps skittish employers from taking a chance on her.

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Roadside Attractions

One evening, Javier (Bernardo Badillo), a fellow gig worker at Emily’s job, begs her to take his shift so he can attend his son’s baseball game. Emily reluctantly obliges, and he tells her that as a thank-you, he’ll hook her up with a way to make $200 in one hour. All she has to do is text a number and go to the address that’s sent to her. Though she’s got an old friend who keeps promising to set her up with an interview at an advertising agency, Emily is in no position to turn down quick cash.

The address that she shows up to the next day is certainly no place for someone with a criminal record, with its fluorescent lighting, loose wires, and generally sketchy vibes. Emily quickly learns what she knew from the start: What she’ll be asked to do here, along with a group of other people looking for easy money, is illegal. “You won’t be in danger, you won’t endanger another person, but you will be breaking the law,” a man named Youcef (Theo Rossi) tells the group. Anyone who wishes to leave can do so at any time, but Emily chooses to stay.

Fake IDs and dummy credit cards with stolen card numbers are made up for each person in attendance. Their mission is simple: go into an electronics store, buy a television with the fraudulent card, and leave. Upon delivery of the television, they’ll be rewarded with $200 cash. How do they know the cards will work and that they won’t be caught? They don’t. Both sides of the equation are leading with blind trust in the pursuit of a small windfall.

Even with a scam that’s seemingly simple, Emily the Criminal mounts the tension like it's a full-scale bank heist. Writer-director John Patton Ford crafts suspense by thrusting Emily into situations that could be life-altering if she were to be caught or even suspected of anything illegal. She may not be a career criminal, but her record is already smattered with enough offenses that it would be impossible for her to claw her way out of the judicial system’s grasp if something went left.

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As Emily traverses further into blue-collar crime, she’s forced to weigh the morality of what she’s being asked to do with her own needs in a world where the odds are stacked against her. It’s the same question that thousands of people ask themselves every day: How thin is the line between crime and survival when society keeps reformation increasingly difficult to attain?

When Emily takes on a larger role in the operation by teaming up with Youcef, she makes a conscious choice to become entrenched in the world that she’s spent so long trying to distance herself from. But despite her actions, it’s impossible not to empathize with Emily. She’s found herself inadvertently trapped after being sold the same dream as every other millennial: Go to college and take out loans to fund your future—eventually, the degree will pay for itself! Except that, when life gets in the way, that dream crumbles into crippling debt.

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Roadside Attractions

With any other lead, Emily the Criminal wouldn’t be nearly as successful in garnering that kind of compassion from a viewer. Plaza’s signature deadpan delivery and her undeniable charm make her the perfect fit for the role. Any other choice for Emily could easily come off as too apathetic or listless. Her modest execution of Emily’s compulsions—whether they be for low-level crime or challenging authority figures who view themselves as above her—makes for a thoroughly gripping and unpredictable story. Once again, we’ve been given irrefutable proof that Plaza is one of the best young actors working today.

Still, the film is almost entirely devoid of the kind of risks that could really set it apart from other crime thrillers. None of the creative choices push any boundaries. And even with a lead as indisputably watchable as Plaza and a charming supporting performance from Theo Rossi (who should be cast as the love interest in every film ever, if casting directors were smart), Emily the Criminal, like its titular character, can never quite outrun its audience’s expectations.

And that’s just what I liked about it.

Every crime thriller now feels like it has to have enormous stakes. It has to be Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II speeding around Los Angeles in Ambulance in police chases, filmed using one of Michael Bay’s two hundred drones. Or Jake Gyllenhaal as a 911 operator. Or Jake Gyllenhaal as a sinewy nocturnal crime chaser.

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Those kinds of thrillers are fun, sure, but when they try to resonate on a deeper level, they ultimately fall short. Emily the Criminal’s focus on character over chaos lets us empathize with someone whose plight probably isn’t far from our own versions of financial hardship. It may not be a big narrative swing, but it works well in the film’s small scale.

Emily the Criminal may be reminiscent of the Golden Age of 2008 DVD-rental-kiosk glory, but it remains just as thrilling the tenth time around thanks to Aubrey Plaza. Pushed to the far reaches of capitalism’s borders, Plaza’s Emily is a captivating antihero, as electric as the stun gun she keeps by her side in case a job goes wrong. Her journey through the amateur crime underworld doesn’t present any radical new ideas, but that’s what helps the film capture post-recession millennial malaise.

Things keep getting worse for Emily, just as they do for the rest of us. The scariest thrills of all are the ones that hit closest to home.

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