TEXAS, USA — So this is what Aubrey Plaza looks like when an Aubrey Plaza character doesn’t have the upper hand.
Seething, slipping and eventually steering her way through a series of dubious moral choices that are practically already made once they’re presented to her, Plaza spends most of her new movie “Emily the Criminal” bracing for the worst. Her eponymous protagonist reluctantly grips the pocketed pepper spray as she wanders into a warehouse where she’s promised the opportunity to earn $200 in an hour, her supermoon-sized eyes later locking on the cash register processing a fraudulent credit card she’s been supplied with, her gait reminiscent of someone constantly on hot coals. Emily, suffering from that common Millennial syndrome of Steeped in Student Debt and already mired in a tough-luck streak by the time we meet her, is as much a desperado as April Ludgate is.
But “Emily the Criminal” – less a rage against the way things are than a taut diagnosis of how things inexplicably continue to be – sees the actress finally, fully stripping herself of the darkly comic pretensions that have defined her since her “Parks and Rec” days. On the other side of that metamorphosis is a performance that takes after the ferociously committed work of Rebecca Hall, who easily could have slotted into this role if it didn’t need someone younger and thus more convincingly vulnerable to the razor’s edge of a sociopolitical framework eager to dispose of castaways before kicking its feet up.
It’s tough, then, to blame Emily when she takes up the path of 8-bit criminal; up to this point in John Patton Ford’s genre-scrunching feature debut, to blame anyone for the stations they occupy would be to willingly avert your gaze from the larger dynamics at play that put them there. Forced to put her artistic pursuits on hold, Emily now is a contracted caterer where 40 hours a week is never guaranteed and job interviews stall once a prior conviction is brought up.
She’s stuck, in other words, and Ford neatly establishes the pressure-cooker scenario that repeatedly leads her back to Youcef (Theo Rossi), the local handler empowering her to make a quick buck with no guarantees she won’t be caught.
Ford’s film may have its eye on the cruelest of capitalistic machinery, but that isn’t to say he doesn’t understand the value of an economic, stuck-to-your-subject approach. To his credit, he appears to have known exactly what kind of persona-shattering performance Plaza was capable of in the wake of recent movies like “Black Bear” and “Ingrid Goes West”; here, he makes it a point to present his lead and the rest of “Emily the Criminal” in nerve-squeezing medium close-up. So far as I can recall, it’s only in one key moment when Emily’s dreams – the legitimate ones, that is – are closest to her reach that Ford allows cinematographer Jeff Bierman to finally take his camera wide, emphasizing the rest of his debut feature as a desperate scramble for the upper hand in a system where people jump to take advantage of each other in the penthouse offices and back alleys alike.
What sets “Emily the Criminal” apart is that it presents its order of events as natural, cyclical and definitive, without foregoing character for fist-in-the-air histrionics. Emily’s actions are anchored tightly to her circumstances and vice-versa, and though her quick leap to criminal empress skirts the edges of believability, Ford smartly steers away from aesthetic exaggeration; never does Emily stroll into a Louis Vuitton store or eye a Beverly Hills mansion. She’s a survivalist (though not an invincible one) and that defining characteristic makes the movie all the more potent.
Several times Youcef reminds Emily she can back out whenever she wants, no questions asked. What Ford’s script most acutely emphasizes is that the choice is an illusion for someone as out of options as she is. “I just want to be able to experience things,” she says, and we believe her; after several seasons wearing a mask of apathy in “Parks and Rec,” it’s remarkable to see Plaza as emotionally bare as she is here.
That’s only accentuated by the movie’s biggest surprise and its biggest swerve: the moral dilemma at its center reveals itself to be sketched with shades of sadness, of a lightly existential lament at the hierarchy of things that limits opportunities and discredits dreams. In a movie with its fair share of viscerally thrilling moments, perhaps the most resonant is a scene that finds Youcef and Emily essentially role-playing their way through a social scenario where only they recognize themselves as the outsiders that they are.
Tinged with a tenderness we can't completely trust, the scene evolves their dynamic to a place beyond mere genre box-checking even as Ford seems to be in conversation with a genre’s cinematic history, and though things become less convincing when their relationship blooms into romance, “Emily the Criminal” also makes an engaging argument for living and dying by spontaneous action—for impulsion as being the only path to doing something with your life that isn’t preordained, regardless of what happens to your humanity.
"Emily the Criminal" is rated R for language, some violence and brief drug use. It's now screening in theaters. Runtime: 1 hour, 33 minutes.
Starring Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Bernardo Badillo, Jonathan Avigdori.
Written and directed by John Patton Ford
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