“Want to make $200 in an hour?” reads the anonymous text, and Emily (Aubrey Plaza) absolutely does. On her own, in her thirties and out of options, Emily is struggling to repay $70,000 in student loans by working a punishing food-delivery job with no protections or a reliable schedule. A talented artist, she longs to land a graphic-design position like her best friend, Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke), but an old assault conviction makes for awkward interviews.
Humility, however, doesn’t come easily to Emily, whose instinct is always to snap back — as Liz’s smug boss (Gina Gershon) learns when she suggests Emily ought to be grateful for an unpaid internship. Scenes like this spike the film with millennial fury, their realism grounding this chilly, assured thriller (the feature debut of John Patton Ford) in recognizable situations. Emily’s belligerence seems an appropriate response to the economic trap sprung on a generation of graduates exploited by gig work and corporate internships alike. So when that initial text leads to a lucrative, seemingly simple job as a dummy shopper — purchasing expensive electronics with stolen credit cards — we feel as much relief for her as apprehension.
And, it turns out, she’s good at this. Tough-minded and cleareyed, armed only with pepper spray (she will later graduate to a Taser and box-cutter), Emily soon advances to bigger, far riskier endeavors. Under the tutelage of the charming Youcef (Theo Rossi), an immigrant with rental-property dreams, she begins to make real money. We wait for the hammer to fall, and it does; but the strength of Ford’s script (based in part on his own experience with student debt) lies in its ability to highlight the scariness of Emily’s situation without overdoing the violence, giving her journey a believability it might otherwise lack. Those few minutes between the swiping of a credit card and its authorization have never felt so fraught.
Essential to this is Plaza’s intense, subtle performance, one that should lay to rest any doubts that she can headline a drama. With almost documentarylike impassivity, Ford and his cinematographer, Jeff Bierman, scrutinize Emily with neither sympathy nor censure, her close-ups flickering equally between anxiety and resolve. And by situating the character among many drawn by desperation to scams like this, “Emily the Criminal” plays less like a lecture on the evils of capitalism than a darkly demented workplace drama, a cry of outrage from those forced to choose between legal enslavement and illegally obtained freedom.
Emily the Criminal
Rated R for stealing, stabbing and swindling up a storm. Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes. In theaters.