Sundance 2022 Film Review – Emily The Criminal (2022)

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What would you do if you had the opportunity to wipe out mounting debts in a few short months but it meant doing something illegal just to get there? It sounds a little mad to even contemplate such an ordeal but people do extraordinary things in extraordinary circumstances and even the smartest, most honest person in the world is capable of such things if pushed in the wrong direction. Such real-life anxieties surrounding money – particularly in the wake of the economic crashes and post-COVID – provide the fuel for Emily The Criminal, a story about one such woman cornered into such drastic measures just to keep her head above water.

Emily (Aubrey Plaza) is a disillusioned thirty-something who isn’t living the life she expected: forced to leave school due to a misdemeanour that has followed her ever since like an overbearing shadow, she is trying to make ends meet by working for a food delivery service to help pay off her $70,000 student loans with its ever-increasing interest rates. Still desperate to follow her dreams of becoming a full-time artist, she had hoped her best friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke) might help but no one seems willing to give Emily the second chance she craves. Then, a colleague tells her of a secret opportunity to make $200 – and maybe more – for an hour’s work. The catch: it’s being a middleman (woman) for a fake credit cards scam buying high-end televisions but the fiscal enticing is too much for her to resist and soon becomes and soon she becomes deeply involved within the scam and with one of its runners, Youcef (Theo Rossi).

Relentless from its opening frames to its shocking, stressful finale, John Patton Ford’s delicious thriller doesn’t let up, moving at quite the lick, with Emily’s ever-escalating circumstances making each scene more and more fraught with both danger and intrigue. You want to look away but you can’t stop watching, as all of the best thrillers should be, and this one is no different. Shot with intensity and frenetic pace, Ford and cinematographer Jeff Bierman (known for his stellar work with some of the music world’s biggest artists) choose the Greengrass/Safdies approach here, flooding the film with shaky, dizzying hand-held sequences that both enthrall and mesmerise, becoming increasingly frenetic as Emily finds herself delving deeper and deeper into the dark world that surrounds her.

Whether the politics or choices she makes are what many of us would choose to follow, desperate times call for desperate measures, and Ford beautifully portrays a person with nothing else to lose and everything to gain, even if it means her downfall. Anyone who has been offered “experience and promotion” over money for services rendered will know exactly how Emily feels, reflecting the unequal and unfair economics of the US in years gone past. Towards its climactic battle, it does get a little outlandish but it earns massive credit for its hugely impressive first two-thirds, which echoes Drive, Uncut Gems, Nightcrawler, and Michael Mann’s Thief in both style and tone but is certainly its own, unique beast.

Key to the success of the film, though, is its lead and in another brilliant turn, Aubrey Plaza opens the locks perfectly. Over the years, she has been somewhat pigeon-holed as the dry, sarcastic comic relief – we’re talking Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates and Dirty Grandpa and more – but recently she has sought out roles and projects that have taken her out of her comfort zone and for that she deserves much praise. Coupled with last year’s underseen gem Black Bear, this marks another semi-departure for the actor who thrives in this altogether new ball pit.

★★★★

Thriller | Cert: tbc | Sundance Film Festival 2022 | Dir. John Patton Ford | Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Megalyn Echikunwoke

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