Review by Sean Boelman
With what is perhaps the worst title of any of the films in the festival, John Patton Ford’s Emily the Criminal promised to be a thriller with a socially-conscious edge. And while there are no complaints to be had in terms of its entertainment value, the movie only has fleeting moments of profundity.
The film follows a woman who, struggling to get out of her student loan debt and unable to find a high-paying job out of college, gets roped into a credit card scam and begins to spiral into the criminal underworld. It’s the same type of “good person driven to desperate measures” thriller that we have seen plenty of times before, and little is done to make it stand out.
Even though the movie goes exactly in the direction that one would expect, it does a good job of keeping the audience on the edge of their seats. The more high-anxiety scenes, while not unpredictable, are shot in a way as to heighten the tension to create an artificial feeling of suspense even though the viewer knows what is going to happen.
Ford also imbues the film with an intriguing aesthetic. Although the movie is set in the modern day, it almost has a retro vibe to it. It has a vibe that is almost reminiscent of the Safdies’ work, albeit at a scale that is much less aggressive. There are a few scenes done in a way that shows Ford has a propensity for shooting action.
It seems that Ford is trying to say something about the flaws of the education system with his film, but it doesn’t end up amounting to much more than a strong motivation for his characters. Apart from one scene that absolutely skewers the system of unpaid internships, the movie is disappointingly toothless in this regard.
That said, even though the motivation for the protagonist is solid, the character is somewhat problematically-written. Frequent confrontations in which the character is involved make the character feel somewhat stand-offish, including the opening scene which threatens to get the audience off on the wrong foot.
Aubrey Plaza’s performance in the leading role is very good, full of the required anger it takes to pull the character off. Admittedly, there isn’t anything particularly nuanced about it — the character is very one-note, as is the script — but she does exactly what the character demands, and well. Theo Rossi, on the other hand, is terrible. The performance he gives is just unintelligibly misguided.
Emily the Criminal is enjoyable enough for what it is, although it doesn’t accomplish the loftier goals it sets for itself. For those seeking out an entertaining thriller that has glimpses of provocation but isn’t too challenging, this is worth watching.
Emily the Criminal screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which runs virtually from January 20-30.