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Emily the Criminal (BFI London Film Festival 2022)

3 min read
Emily the Criminal

Aubrey Plaza is popular with many people due to her work within comedy. Her role in television series Parks & Recreations made her a household name, but in recent years her film work has shifted tone. First came Ingrid Goes West, a social media inspired thriller about obsession, then the mind-bending Black Bear. Now comes Emily the Criminal, which wowed the Sundance crowd back in January. 

In Emily the Criminal, Plaza plays the titular Emily. The young woman is drowning in college debt. She is making her monthly payments, but due to the low wage at her delivery job, she is perpetually stuck covering the interest alone. A prior DUI conviction and criminal record are preventing her from gaining employment in the field that she studied for, and life is rather bleak. Debut director sets the scene with ease, highlighting Emily's sorry existence in just a small handful of shots. The monotony of her work-life and the crippling anxiety of her debt is a real world scenario for many, especially in the US, and Ford captures it perfectly. 

Emily the Criminal

What happens next is something of a wish fulfilment for many. Emily is suddenly handed a life-line by a coworker – a way to make a lot of money, fast. Of course this method comes with strings attached, but being desperate to earn proper money for once, Emily forges on. The task in hand is to become one of several operators for Youcef (), the mastermind of a local fraud operation. The con is simple: purchase high ticket items on stolen credit card numbers and then resell for profit. Emily's job is to purchase the products, with her efforts rewarded in the form of a percentage of the cost of the item acquired. A natural at the job, she quickly advances to higher-priced merchandise. Not content with only getting a cut of the deals, Emily sees an opportunity to strike out on her own, but quickly finds herself in over her head. 

The tension within Emily the Criminal is incredible. Ford's work rivals that of Josh and Benny Safdie's Uncut Gems, making it a rather uncomfortable experience for the viewer. His ability to build dread is masterful, the intensity ever-increasing. There are several scenes that cause a sharp intake (and holding) of breath, but one involving a home invasion makes your blood run cold. Plaza is on excellent form as Emily. The character, and the film, is one that she believes in, with Plaza also serving as producer on the project. Plaza commits her all to Emily and gives a performance to rival that of her role in Black Bear. It's a continuation of her transition from comedy kook for hire to serious leading lady, and a startling calling card for the actor. As Emily she gets to be tough, vulnerable, and on occasion, funny, making her the perfect conduit through which this story flows. 

A dark exploration of the American Dream and the dangers that it holds, Emily the Criminal is a sensational crime thriller. Made by both a stellar central performance from Plaza and an enthusiastic and talented filmmaker, Emily the Criminal has all the potential to become a future classic. 

Emily the Criminal screened at the BFI London Film Festival 2022

and will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on 16 January 2023