Film Reviews

Emily the Criminal (2022)

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

John Patton Ford’s Emily the Criminal marks the debut of his first feature film and it couldn’t have come at a stranger time. It’s been around 12 years since the director has had a project in Sundance and it was for a student short of his. The director himself wasn’t sure when he would be back and certainly didn’t think it would take him this long. It’s been a long and hard journey (something his characters face) but it all pays off in this slimy little indie crime thriller.

Producer of the film and lead actor, Aubrey Plaza stars as the criminal herself. She is just great in the role, as always! Her character is essentially locked out of job industries that require any sort of background check. It’s mostly unclear but she once got a felony for aggravated assault, on top of a rather defensive attitude whenever someone stands in the way of her next potential career aka her long and winding road out of debt. But it starts with a phone number and a text. It leads her to some undercover operation that deals in credit card fraud. So Emily earns some cold hard cash the hard and illegal way with these odd jobs as a dummy shopper. One head of the operation Youcef (Theo Rossi) takes notice of Emily and the shit she goes through so he lends a hand in her illicit career and the two briefly become a thing. From there she really dives into some real money. She goes nuts forging her own cards, buying products, selling products, dividing up the commission, rinsing and repeating it again and again.

It was only a matter of time before this completely illegal rich quick scheme ran dry and it leads to a thrilling conclusion with robbing some robbers….blood is spilled, money is stolen, deaths occur and it ultimately leads to a South American refuge.

Shot entirely during our current pandemic on location in the Los Angeles area, Ford uses some crafty filmmaking to make it work. We’re talking about one of the largest cities in the US and the American filmmaking capital but there’s just one major issue. There is a pandemic still going on. Filming when even possible has become essentially their own heists. Getting a film made and actually making it right now is such a remarkable accomplishment, a risky, probably unnecessary one but remarkable nonetheless. The framing of the film feels claustrophobic with a feeling that there are very little legitimate prospects currently available. It functions effectively within the film but outside it deprives us of the full LA experience.

What I think the film does best is expose how screwed up the actual job industry as a whole can be. It can feel much shadier than the actual criminal activity. This is honestly not something that has been at the forefront of my mind until seeing it on screen like this. It’s not just the cushy executive positions but it’s also the middle class positions in an office 8-5 job, the non unionized catering company who can at the snap of a finger make your income disappear with zero hours, and especially modern delivery driver gigs who live on the breadcrumb tips. It’s all a part of our messed up capitalistic society and it’s disgusting. 

So the rules must either be broken or manipulated. 

Plaza and Rossi embody these desperate bag chasing characters impressively. Leading the entire way. There is a grounded nature to their Los Angeleans, hopelessly drowning in debts, student and personal and overall the performances are some of the actors finest to date, even if I personally wanted more desperation. The stakes never feel extremely high but that’s just me.

There are some glaring issues I have with the film. It feels like the entire 93 minute runtime was dragged out and thanks to Covid I believe it’s wasn’t able to fully utilize LA really dark corners, spread its cinematic wings and go absolutely nuts like plenty of LA Thrillers that have come before it. 

Unfortunately the movie doesn’t hit me as hard as I thought it might. I too have some hefty amounts of student debts that need to be paid off so the film hits super close to home for me. Of course I don’t live in expensive LA or resort to criminal activity to pay off my debts but it still. Hell, I’ve even pieced together bits of screenplays that include this very nightmare, it’s such a great concept to weasel into modern filmmaking and I truly believe there will be more films that tackle this very issue in the future. It feels too straight forward for my movie tastes, I tend to enjoy a more complex narrative with some near future twists. There may be films that better utilize the narrative in the future and if they’re made *after* the pandemic is in the rear view mirror, they’ll instantly benefit from having more opportunities at their disposal. 

But overall John Patton Ford’s Emily the Criminal makes for a fairly decent festival thriller. I applaud it for getting made in such a strange and challenging time.

Third film of Sundance 2022

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