In Emily the Criminal, Crime Pays When Nothing Else Will

Aubrey Plaza’s title character in Emily the Criminal is trapped by crushing student loan debt, a punitive criminal justice system, and low wages. She, like so many other Americans, feels like she’s out of legitimate options — because she is.

Still of Aubrey Plaza as Emily in Emily the Criminal. (Roadside Attractions / Vertical Entertainment)

If you get the chance, go see Emily the Criminal. It’s a surprisingly great, gritty little indie film by a first-time director named John Patton Ford. His low-budget debut was shot in twenty days and really demonstrates, among other things, that Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation, Safety Not Guaranteed) can do a lot more than her usual dark comedy stylings.

Plaza plays the title character, who’s introduced at a job interview displaying that nervous, placating smile that people desperate for employment wear during such miserable ordeals. The interviewer claims his company doesn’t do background checks, but they ask that potential employees be absolutely honest about any black marks on their records.

Falling for it, Emily confesses to a DUI, and the interviewer counters by telling her he’s well-aware that she has a criminal record — an old assault charge she refuses to explain to anyone until the end of the film — because in fact his company does do background checks.

It takes a minute for Emily to register that she’s been had, and in the meantime, she’s gone on automatically trying to be polite. But the simmering rage overtakes her, and she curses the interviewer and walks out.

This opening scene sets up Emily’s basic situation in life: a young woman working a dead-end food delivery job, drowning in student loan debt, with a police record that’s going to prevent her from any better employment. It also sets up Emily’s basic tendency to absorb a blow, quickly recover, and lash back with unexpected fury. That tendency is going to help her survive in a brave new world of low-level criminal enterprise.

Through a coworker, Emily is approached to do a one-off job as a “dummy shopper,” supplied with a fake credit card to buy an expensive electronics item and deliver it to the young Lebanese immigrant cousins running the operation, Youcef (Theo Rossi) and Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori). They give her a $200 fee and sell off the hot item, racking up fast profits by overseeing many such scams per day.

As nerve-racking as it is, Emily does so well at this job, she keeps getting asked to do more. But initially, thinking she only needs quick cash to ease her current situation, she’s pinning her hopes on Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke), her old friend from art school, who’s promising to hook her up with a decent-paying job at an ad agency where she might be able to use her training.

This possibility will be dangled just out of her reach throughout the film, right up till the point that she finally scores the interview with the agency’s monstrous boss, Alice (Gina Gershon in a small but memorable role) — who, it turns out, is not offering Emily a job but an unpaid internship.

By that point, Emily no longer hesitates in her retaliations, rightly and righteously scorning the whole idea of such rank exploitation. The boss calls her “spoiled” for her unwillingness to work on a trial basis without pay for six months.

One of the impressive aspects of the movie is how its spare, realistic visual style communicates so effectively. Long before this final, disastrous interview that ends Emily’s attempts to fit in with the “legitimate” world, everything has signaled how awful the ad agency job would be. Liz herself is beautiful in a glossy way, but she’s already taking on a kind of smooth, hollow way of presenting herself that makes her promises ring false.

And it’s clear Emily is moving rapidly away from the world of slick professionalism in her own appearance, manner, and outlook, making the old friends an odd pair. She can find no one to talk to at Liz’s party where Emily has the opportunity to mix with her possible future coworkers. This experience makes Youcef so attractive by comparison, they begin a sexual relationship.

By the time Emily finally accesses the inner sanctum of the ad agency for her interview, its faux-industrial loft space offices, dotted with mod, bright-colored, artfully arranged seating, and its young hipster-douchebag employees and clientele, all make the heart sink at first glance. Even before the interview goes south, it’s clear that Emily can’t work here.

And in the meantime, she’s gotten heavily involved in dummy shopping, to the point that she’s making her own phony credit cards with old equipment Youcef supplies her with. She has an early, violent encounter on the job that might have warned her away — she uses a phony card to buy an expensive car and, in a very tense sequence, has eight minutes to drive away with it before the car dealers discover the scam. She doesn’t make it out in time, is pursued, punched, and bloodied, but then remembers she carries pepper spray.

Still, Emily’s success at credit card fraud grows, so does her angry confidence, the level of danger she puts herself in, and the lethal nature of her weaponry: first the pepper spray, then a taser, then a box cutter. Soon it’s clear she’s actually much tougher than now-boyfriend Youcef, whose sweet face, sympathetic nature, and dreams of buying an apartment building so he can get out of a way of life he hates make you worry for him through the whole film.

“People think you’re a pushover,” Emily warns him, having learned that in the ugly system they live in, that’s fatal.

Still of Theo Rossi as Youcef in Emily the Criminal. (Roadside Attractions / Vertical Entertainment)

Emily’s growing determination to really live, to experience the world in a way that doesn’t involve the constant humiliating exchange of excessive time and labor in exchange for meager amounts of money, inevitably pushes her outside of typical employment opportunities, cultural conventions, and the law.

It’s strangely exhilarating to see a film imbued with such 1970s-style worker rage. New director Ford was partly inspired to make the film by his own student debt and unemployment terrors. He’s so good at capturing the minute Emily changes from beat-up loser at “normal” capitalist life to implacable criminal, I hope he gets every opportunity to move up to bigger budget movies.

Emily the Criminal is so persuasive, it gets a hilariously wrongheaded review by Ross Douthat in the National Review, in which he ties himself in knots trying to explain away the film’s power:

Emily the Criminal, a small, spikey, effective movie about a downwardly mobile Millennial art-school graduate turning to a life of crime, is a political and moral Rorschach test that gradually resolves itself into a meditation on the lure of sin. In outline, it sounds like a movie about the cruel late-capitalist structures oppressing overeducated young Americans; in substance, it’s a movie about how the decision to become a wicked person can be made freely, even eagerly, while you tell yourself you didn’t have a choice.

See it if only to revel in how much Douthat is wrong. This movie is not about “the lure of sin.”

As Ford puts it, in a nation in which huge numbers of young people are saddled with crushing debt, well-paid jobs are hard to find, and homeownership is increasingly beyond their reach:

[W]e feel great release and great gratification watching the shows about people who actually break the rules to get what they want. Because so often we feel like that must be the only way. What else can we be expected to do? . . . I didn’t want [the film] to be like a tragic morality tale. I wanted it to be ultimately about success . . . a coming-of-age story about someone discovering who they are and what they’re good at, and what they’re probably going to continue to do.

Because the entire film is so clearly demonstrating the way Emily is exhausting all her limited options in a society we recognize as our own badly malfunctioning one, it takes Douthat’s level of willful blindness to read it as a morality tale of an individual choosing to align herself with the Prince of Darkness.

Once upon a time, decades back, it was possible to make the case that young underclass people could take out loans, get an education, and be reasonably sure of a career, or at least a stable job with a decent enough salary to pay back the loans and still afford food, housing, and transportation. It was never true for everyone in that situation, God only knows, and maybe not even a majority of those who tried. But enough young people could opt for that route and do okay that it was possible for people to believe, and politicians to campaign, on the idea that the system sort of worked.

But now? Who can possibly be kidding themselves at this point except clueless rich people and raving mad ideologues?

How many grad students doomed to joblessness and mountainous debt have to be roaming the plains, how many colleges and humanities programs have to shut down due to low enrollments, how many kids who bought the “STEM education guarantees good jobs” lie have to be on unemployment, how many young people fresh out of the university have to wind up working multiple jobs in the “gig economy” and yet find themselves still unable to afford the rent on a decent apartment, before we can all finally say, “We get it — it’s not working”?

In a different society, say for example, a Nordic social democracy which provides citizens a free or cheap higher education, the Emilys of this world don’t have to take on student debt, giving them more options and more time to find a decent work situation. The criminal justice policies Emily found herself up against in the film wouldn’t have been so punitive and life-destroying.

But that’s not the nature of the times we Americans live in. In this system, her options are so limited that Emily is forced down a societally constructed chute like a hog to the slaughter, unless she finds a last-minute way out of the chute.

And she finds it.