EMILY THE CRIMINAL. Indie crime story with Aubrey Plaza

Emily the Criminal stands out both as a crime thriller and as a classic indie movie.

Tomasz Raczkowski

10 January 2023

emily the criminal emily the criminal

Socially engaged cinema, dealing with the situation of disadvantaged social groups on the labor market, is not associated with the film genre, but rather with raw dramas such as Measure of a Man or stories shot by Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake, Sorry We Missed You). John Patton Ford’s debut film defies this convention, proposing a somewhat natural combination of an “employee drama” with a suspenseful crime story, leading the viewer through a sensational intrigue and social commentary – all in a rough American indie key.

Our guide on this journey is Emily – a thirty-year-old girl from New Jersey trying to make ends meet on the US West Coast. Her passion is painting and drawing, she was supposed to be a painter, but due to a criminal episode she dropped out of college, her career trajectory was broken and she is now at an impasse, living in a shared apartment, without a portfolio, with an unpaid student loan and no particular prospects of changing the situation, hunting for job interviews. Emily the Criminal begins with one these and in a short scene, Ford very suggestively draws both the protagonist and her character – Emily is hampered by a federal sentence from the past, and her temperament, which makes her more willing than to assure her transformation, wears with the interlocutors, departing from parliamentary phrases, does not improve her situation. This is how we meet the character played by Aubrey Plaza, and this moment can be used as a pars pro toto representation of the confrontation “Emily vs. World”.

From this point, the film follows the proven paths of cinema with a criminal undertone – Emily, working part-time in the catering industry, receives a number from a friend that allows her to “earn 2,000 in an hour”. The thing turns out to be relatively safe, although also illegal. Initially distrustful, tempted by quick cash, the heroine quite quickly enters the path of a criminal career in the counterfeit credit card sector, first as a regular contractor, but thanks to the developing relationship with one of the clients, Youcef, Emily begins to do scams on a larger scale and more money. According to other proven schemes, this situation leads to an increase in tension between Emily and Youcef and the latter’s accomplices, which further deepens the protagonist’s immersion in criminal life.


Parallel to the classically developing suspense intrigue, we see Emily’s increasingly weak attempts to keep in touch with her former life and dreams, as well as attempts at an increasingly unrealistic return to the career path she once abandoned. In this way, Ford interweaves the reality of the underworld with the gray everyday life on the margins of the labor market, highlighting the connection between these two spheres – for many people, illegal money is simply a lifeline in the face of an unstable and financially hopeless situation in legal employment. In places where the social and genre contexts most loop, Emily the Criminal is at its best – when Emily explains to copywriters from an advertising agency what she does, or when she clashes with Gina Gershon’s successful woman offering her a few months of unpaid internship. Ford shows a vicious circle and an economic clinch, without falling into the dystopian tones straight from Killing me Softly by Andrew Dominik, but maintaining the closeness to reality that is characteristic of indie cinema. Emily can be almost any of us, and even her foray into the depths of a life of crime is an entry into the world of “little shortcuts”, not the mafia bosses of Scorsese’s movies. This balance gives Ford’s film lightness, protecting it from both cheap journalism and genre clichés.


This construction, however, does not quite deliver the right punchline due to the slightly underdeveloped characterization of Emily herself. While Aubrey Plaza does a great job of creating her character’s mundanity, good intentions and criminal potential at the same time (a few scenes are really great here), she has to work with a text that outlines Emily’s past too sketchily, and worse, ending this thread with an incompletely binding thread with the film’s social undertones, a confession that places Emily in the same ranks with greedy gangsters rather than downtrodden working-class heroes. Ford takes the pronunciation of Emily the Criminal into areas that border on the apotheosis of Social Darwinism or the assertion of the inherent ethical corruption of the human race. This somewhat undermines the film’s reliably built social claw, moving it away from the political sensibility of Ken Loach, and closer to the transformational films of Polish director Władysław Pasikowski, where Emily at some point becomes someone in the style of Franz Maurer from Pigs II.

Despite these false tones, Emily the Criminal offers a lot of good film fun, additionally, one way or another, triggering threads of social criticism, aimed at both the inequality deepening economic system of the United States and the middle-class classism, especially expressed by the nouveau riche “successful people”. Although the protagonist is played here by a world star, Plaza has the ability to blend in with the class image of her class-degraded character. Thanks to this, On the Wrong Road stands out both as a detective story and as a classic indie movie.

Tomasz Raczkowski

Tomasz Raczkowski

Anthropologist, critic, enthusiast of social cinema, British humor and horror films.

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