Thanks to a potent performance by Aubrey Plaza, Emily the criminal packs a punch you won’t see coming. Written and directed by newcomer John Patton Ford, this taut thriller may feel like a Sundance indie, but it has the heart of a ’70s character studio. Plaza, best known for his sardonic persona in Parks and Recreation and a slew of indie comedies, discards the clever wit that put her on the map and takes on the titular character with such heartfelt grit that you can’t help but empathize with her, even as she makes some terrible choices.
Emily is a typical millennial from New Jersey living in Los Angeles. Working for a catering company while struggling to pay off exorbitant student debt, she seems to be climbing a mountain with no end in sight. In the opening, she interviews for a higher-paying job, but is rejected due to a spotty criminal record that includes a DUI and an assault charge. While most movies these days would hold Emily accountable for her misdeeds and force her to atone for two hours, Ford isn’t interested in condemning his characters so much as trying to understand the world they live in. He keeps a mirror up to society which, like him, does the people who live in it, and he doesn’t get off the hook either.
You may not always like Emily, and you may even feel the urge to judge her – she’s messy, complex, and at times seems ready to lash out like a rattlesnake. The former art student has goals and dreams, and every night she scribbles on a notepad while suppressing the knowledge that her current situation is simply not sustainable. There is probably not a young adult in the world who does not want to relate to her predicament.
One day a colleague gives her a tip on a way to earn $200. Desperate, Emily attends a meeting where a nice man named Youcef (a fantastic Theo Rossi) runs an underground credit card scheme. Ford researched how such a business works because the film reveals all its dirty details, which are fascinating. Tasked with buying expensive televisions from chain stores and then bringing them to Yousef and his rough cousins to sell on the black market, Emily soon ends up making fake credit cards and selling televisions out of the back of her car. Under Youcef’s gentle mentorship, a chemistry develops that blossoms into an exciting romance. Then circumstances spiral out of control and Emily finds herself in a crime syndicate that could get her killed.
There are several nerve-wracking moments reminiscent of some of the great crime thrillers of the past few decades. Michael Mann and The Safdie Brothers would be impressed by Ford’s ability to balance action, social commentary and character analysis in the same film and on such a shoestring budget. With director of photography Jeff Bierman, Ford frames everything with a steady-keel handheld camera as we follow Emily through a blistered, sun-bleached Los Angeles that feels both desolate and suffocating. One moment we’re stuck in a throng of people on Hollywood Boulevard, the next we’re lost in a strange residential area with barking dogs and car alarms blaring in the distance. This movie knows Los Angeles and its distinct undercurrent of paranoia and menace.
The soundtrack is practically non-existent and the photography is grounded in everyday reality. Still, Ford has a distinct flair and panache that transcends the usual documentary-style Sundance drama. He is William Friedkin (The French connection) and Gus Van Sant (Pharmacy Cowboy) rolled to one. In fact, there’s one car chase you wish had lasted a little longer, but because it’s so emotionally frayed and unsettling, you’re relieved when it’s over. That’s the kind of disturbing effect this movie has. And it never gives up.
There isn’t a moment you don’t feel Plaza’s anxiety, and the unpredictability of the story floats off the screen. The actress exhibits the same torment in her comedic roles and seems to thrive on playing characters who don’t feel a part of anything while watching the world pass by from the wings. You wish her character gave her better instincts, but at some point you realize, these is her instincts (hence the film’s title). Ultimately, Ford forces us to ask the question, “What is a criminal?” The budding filmmaker exposes the hypocrisy of a failing system even as he shines a light on his heroine’s weaknesses.
The best crime films have an ingredient most filmmakers struggle with: empathy. You can see it in Mann’s safecracker (played by the late James Caan) in Thief or Dustin Hoffman’s nervous ex-consul in the 1978s Just in time. The architects of these stories do not distance themselves from their subjects, they understand their situation even as they set the stage for their destruction. By the end of this movie, you realize that Emily is not your enemy; she simply wants to have a normal life like the rest of us. Ford recognizes that while we need to take personal responsibility for our actions, the broken system also takes the blame. This is not your usual indie fare; it’s a guiltless indictment of the broken American dream and one of the best films of the year.
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