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Emily the Criminal – BFI London Film Festival Review

Emily the Criminal – BFI London Film Festival Review

Emily (Aubrey Plaza) never intended to be delivering food to get by at this stage of her life, but she has huge student debts to pay, and a felony conviction in her past that prevents her ever getting further than a job interview. So there she is.

Grateful for her covering his shift at the last minute, a colleague tips Emily off to an illicit scheme which allows participants to make $200 in an hour. Badly in need of $200, she goes along, indulges in a little light credit card fraud, and pockets the money. At the same time, she catches the eye of Youcef (Theo Rossi), who’s running the scheme, and he offers her the chance to make even more money via even more illegal acts. Desperate, and a little bit curious, she agrees – and sets in motion a chain of events that will end with a body count.

Witnessing Aubrey Plaza take on challenging dramatic roles after her six years as fan favourite April Ludgate on beloved sitcom Parks and Recreation continues to be a joy – as with 2020’s Black Bear, her lead performance here is the film’s greatest asset. When we meet Emily at the start of the movie, she’s frustrated, exhausted, and still clinging on to the slightest hope she’ll be able to claw her way back into the system that seems to have excluded her for life on the back of one silly mistake. As the subsequent events unfold, we see her move past the point of caring, and Plaza makes this shift exhilarating.

Whereas Black Bear had little holding it together but her central turn, Emily The Criminal is a much more satisfying whole. Debut feature writer/director John Patton Ford manages to sustain a formidable level of tension throughout the whole movie; even the scenes which appear ostensibly ‘safe’ always hold the threat of combustion. With a leading character as unpredictable as Emily, it genuinely feels like anything could happen at any moment.

More than that though, Emily The Criminal is so potent thanks to the sheer pulsating force of its anger, and how it propels the movie forward; Ford’s screenplay takes powerful aim at various capitalistic injustices. Underlining everything is the way having a felony on her record locks Emily out of having a job that would provide her sufficient financial sustenance, or – heaven forbid! – personal satisfaction. Then there’s the huge precariousness of people living in the gig economy (when Emily misses a single shift she has her hours dramatically cut, and when she complains, her boss retorts, ‘Quit talking like you’ve got rights and get back to work’). And in the film’s greatest scene, Emily thrillingly eviscerates the whole immoral concept of unpaid internships.

It’s not all scorching anger – some of the movie’s most aching moments are those that contrast Emily’s position with that of her friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke), with whom she went to art school, and who possesses the life that our heroine wanted. Ford is astute at drawing out the awkwardness of their relationship, the unspoken power differential that makes their interactions quietly but palpably uncomfortable. Whenever Liz looks at Emily, you can see her thinking, ‘There but for the grace of god…’

Between the formidable force of Aubrey Plaza’s lead performance and the film’s disembowelment of various capitalistic ills, Emily The Criminal is a crime thriller that leaves a blaze of righteous fury in its wake.


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