Thursday 12 January 2023

Emily the Criminal

Imagine a breathless thriller that is structured around four job interviews. The first one is a con – the interviewer has made up his mind about Aubrey Plaza’s Emily before she’s even entered the room. He lies to her about what kind of information he’s assembled about her, asking probing questions about a conviction. She lies and he reveals he knows about her assault charge. What unfolds is a marvel. Instead of backing down or being cowered, Emily immediately calls him out on lying to her, on trying to test and trick her. It’s a perfect way to introduce her, and an explanation for what happens later. 

Emily has $70,000 and her repayments don’t even cover the interest. She works as a contractor for a catering company, the kind of place that clearly profits off the precarity of contracting workers and still treating them like employees. When she enters corporate offices to set up buffets for the workers, they treat her like furniture. Before Emily gets caught up in the credit card fraud ring that promises her better returns for her work, the world that Emily the Criminal is already presented as inherently exploitative and impossible to navigate with dignity for someone without privilege. The fact that all the people that hold power over her are presented as capitalism’s version of legitimate criminals means that for Emily, the only way to claw back a liveable life is to become a criminal herself. 

She is recruited by Youcef (Theo Rossi). Her first job is to purchase a TV with a stolen credit card. He offers her a second, more profitable and dangerous job, and she takes it after realising there is no other way out of her predicament. She buys a car with a no-limit credit card, knowing that she has eight minutes to get out before the bank will call the seller. It goes wrong – the seller assaults her, after discovering the con – but once again, instead of backing down, she proves herself resilient. First, there’s a car chase, then she attacks the pursuer with a pepper spray. She gets out – with a broken nose, but successfully. 

Stylistically, Emily the Criminal is outstanding, maybe because its action sequences are so unlike any others I’ve seen recently. Music is used sparsely, and violence erupts suddenly, unexpectedly, realistically. Later, when Emily has gone freelance with Youcef’s help, she is robbed by one of her buyers – a terrifying moment, made helpless and held down with a boxcutter to her throat – but again, instead of relenting she follows the robbers, tases on of them, takes back what is hers. She will reveal later that her assault charge was for attacking a former boyfriend, that her only regret is not being more threatening, to discourage him from going to the police. The same kind of defiant aggression breaks through several times, as does her ability to think on her feet, to seek out conflict where she’d be expected to back down. 

One of my favourite scenes is her second official job interview. There are a few scenes throughout the films that show her surrounded by her former friends, who have moved up in the world and seem weirdly distant, as if the spectre of her conviction was haunting her, as if they were afraid that her lack of success could discredit them or rub off on them. The person who is presented as her best friend drags her feet when it comes to getting her a job interview with her boss, but finally comes through for her. A few seconds into the interview, Emily realises that this job she’s pinned her hopes on, that she’s seen as a way to get out of the criminal life and back into a respectable one, is in fact an unpaid internship. Gina Gershon only has this one scene in the film, but she manages to personify the entire absurdity of an unpaid internship model. She presents it as an act of charity to allow Emily to work full-time hours for six months without any money, but Emily, outraged because the capacity to do this is so obviously tied up in the privilege of being supported, somehow, by rich parents or a trust fund (and the fact that her friend never mentioned this to her, in spite of certainly knowing Emily could never say yes), calls her out on it. Gershon’s character talks down to her, and Emily is having none of it. It’s a gratifying scene, a take-down of a broken culture. “What I don’t understand is how you feel so comfortable asking someone to work without pay.”, she says, and eventually walks out, burning her bridges. The only way to break the system is to write the rules yourself. The only way to exist with dignity is to steal back. 

Emily dreams of being an artist, of travelling to South America. Youcef dreams of using the money he’s saved on buying an investment property. In the end, Youcef is conned, and their attempt to get his money back goes sour. It ends with a serious injury, a brutal robbery gone wrong. But we’ve seen what Emily does when she’s cornered, and instead of ending up in prison, she takes the money and runs. In the end, she’s where she dreamt of going, running a scam of her own. In the end, she’s the one on the other side of the job interview, offering $200 to a new group of shoppers in South America. As far as anti-capitalist revenge fantasies go, this is a pretty great one, and Aubrey Plaza is a revelation. 

2022, directed by John Patton Ford, starring Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi,  Megalyn Echikunwoke, Gina Gershon. 

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