“All it takes is one bad day” – The Joker
Although no one wants to become the famed DC villain, the Joker’s infamous quote suggests that everyone has the potential to do evil. Despite our best efforts, one bad day or moment can lead to so many more.
While entirely unrelated to the Clown Prince of Crime, this terrifying reality remains the ethos behind Emily the Criminal.
Emily the Criminal tells the story of Emily (Aubrey Plaza), a young woman struggling to deal with her student debt. Unable to find work due to her past criminal record, she becomes desperate for cash. Though, when a co-worker empathizes with her problems, he gives her a mysterious phone number to call where she might find an opportunity to help pay the bills. After making the call, she meets Youcef (Theo Rossi), a charismatic middleman who deals with stolen credit cards. While Emily is initially apprehensive, she accepts the job and the two begin to work together to expand their business ventures.
Directed by John Patton Ford, Emily the Criminal is a gradual slide into darkness. Tightly written and executed, Emily is a surprisingly solid film that knows when to pull its punches and when to hit hard. Through his use of visuals and lighting, Ford creates an atmosphere of increasing dread. For example, as Emily descends further into the darkness, so too does Ford increasingly dim the lights. Whereas Emily begins in broad daylight, by its conclusion, its characters are fully immersed in the shadows, emphasizing the darkness that has consumed them.
Even so, what truly holds the film together is some solid work by Plaza. Known for taking on heavier roles, Plaza has never shied away from the darker edges of society. (In fact, even her most well-known role as April Ludgate from Parks and Recreation often celebrated her dark side.) In Emily, however, Plaza brings a repressed fire to her character that burns more brightly as it is gradually unleashed. At the same time though, there’s a likability to Emily that shines through. Even as she leans further into the criminal underworld, we empathize with her as a viewer until we can no longer support her actions.
And empathy is a key element to Emily’s success.
Grappling with issues of debt and past problems, Emily speaks to the frustrations of a generation who are struggling to find their way. Having committed a felony in her youth, Emily desperately yearns for a fresh start. However, her criminal record works against her, keeping her in a box that prevents her from living her life. Saddled with her past and simply looking to pay the bills, she begrudgingly breaks the law simply because it pays better than her minimum wage job. Despite her record, she is not a woman who wants to do bad. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Nevertheless, her personal struggles have pushed her too far and she desperately needs help.
In this way, Emily recognizes that, more often than not, evil does not exist in a vacuum and is often formed by the circumstances and hurt. In Emily’s case, her greatest desire is simply to be free from debt and free from the judgment of others. Although we struggle to justify her actions, she feels that she has no other alternative under the circumstances. In fact, even those that try to help her find themselves limited with that they can offer. (After all, what good is an internship at a major corporation if it’s unpaid?) As such, her small infractions become a slippery slope of compromise that cause her to fall further into a life of crime, stealing pieces of her soul along the way. Once afraid to go too far, she soon begins to feel that her greatest problem is not going ‘far enough’. Whereas she once had the opportunity for redemption, Emily no longer wants to turn things around.
For her, ‘one bad day’ has now become her world.
With fight and fury, Emily the Criminal spirals into the shadows yet feels grounded enough to be authentic. Even in its wildest moments, there’s something so real about Emily. This feels like a cautionary tale for a generation saddled with the emotional burdens of insurmountable debt and lack of income—and the rage that is bubbling underneath the surface.
Emily the Criminal is available in theatres on Friday, August 12th, 2022.