Sundance 2022: Aubrey Plaza Finds a New Life in 'Emily the Criminal'
by Alex Billington
January 25, 2022
Yo ho, a criminal's life for me. Maybe doing something illegal might actually be better than working a "real" job? There's clever commentary worked into this new film about the inherent problems with capitalism and corporate culture, ultimately hinting that the quickest and easiest way to earn money might actually be the best way. Which is why so many people choose this path instead of a formal career. Emily the Criminal is a slick, engaging credit card scam heist thriller starring Aubrey Plaza - who also produced the film. This is one of the final premieres at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival and it's a late fest highlight, one of my faves. It remains hyper focused and never wanders, with a 96 minute runtime that is just right for this story. A few critics have compared it to Uncut Gems, but I'd say it's much more similar to the black jack scam movie 21.
Emily the Criminal is both written & directed by John Patton Ford, making his feature directorial debut with this film after only one short previously. He's obviously a talented filmmaker because this has the skills of someone who has been making many films already. I hope he makes another one soon. It's obviously a low budget thriller, yet it doesn't seem like the budget limited them in any way. All the scenes feel important and there's never a need for it to expand any more or get any bigger than it needs to be. Aubrey Plaza stars as Emily, a young woman struggling to pay off her $70K in student debt, frustrated with the corporate job world because they won't hire her due to a misdemeanor in her past. She gets a tip to join an underground crime racket and work as a "dummy shopper", a low end credit card scam that utilizes stolen cards to make purchases and get out before anyone realizes what's going on. Things start to go well, maybe even too well.
The film is not just about a criminal, despite the title and the plot, because that's too obvious and bland. On one hand, it's a smart look at how horrible the job market is right now. The gig economy is a pain in the ass and problematic; corporate jobs want you to work for free as an intern or be a perfectly obedient robot for low pay; there's no other easy way to make good money quickly to deal with debt and other personal needs. On the other hand, it's also an intriguing look at how turning to sketchy, victimless (for the most part) crime is actually a more efficient and hassle-less way to "earn a living." And this is something that Emily comes to realize, despite the criminal record she already has. Ultimately I believe this premise is a way of showing us why so many choose crime and shady deals over a legitimate job, because the pay off is bigger for less work, despite the potential for danger. If that bothers you, well, that's exactly the point the film is trying to make.
I enjoyed watching Emily the Criminal from start to finish and recommend it to anyone looking for a smart, modern day crime thriller. Dare I say: debating the ethics and morals of the film won't solve any problems. There's not much to examine there. The film is engaging because it takes you into this world of credit card scams and legitimizes it in a way that will make you wonder why this works so well and how can you get into it, too. The story focuses on Emily because it allows us to sympathize with her and understand why she sees this life as a criminal as a better life. If it gets you what you want and lets you live the way you want, then why not try it out? Yes it's a crime, yes it's fraud, yes it's bad, but so is so much of the corporate world – the big difference is that they wear fancy outfits and pretend it's all legitimate. Sometimes crime really does pay.