Emily the Criminal (2022) – Film Review

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Director: John Patton Ford
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Bernardo Badillo
Certificate: 15

By Sarah Morgan

Did whoever cut together the trailer for Emily the Criminal really understand the movie? Or were they told to make it look like a fast-paced action thriller because they thought more people would go and see it at the cinema?

We’ll probably never know, but those who did see the trailer may have been somewhat surprised by the tone of the film they eventually watched – although they shouldn’t have been disappointed. It might not have been a female-led Die Hard or Taken, but it is one of the most gripping and intelligent crime dramas to hit our screens for many a moon.

emily the criminal film review coverAt the centre of it is a brilliant performance from Aubrey Plaza. If your only previous experience of her is seeing her play the sullen, deadpan April Ludgate in US sitcom Parks & Recreation, you might be in for a surprise.

“Ill-gotten gains”

In writer-director John Patton Ford’s debut feature she takes the role of the titular Emily who, we learn from the off, is a strong character. She’s had an earlier brush with the law – the opening scene sees her trying to hide the fact she has an assault conviction from a potential employer, who then refuses to give her a clerical position. Not that you can blame him – she kicks off big-style when he confronts her about her lie.

You also get the sense this has happened to her many times so, instead of having a well-paid career she feels her college education deserves, she’s drowning in student debt, only just keeping her head above water via a meagre freelance catering delivery position – as she isn’t a permanent member of staff, it’s a job she could lose at any second.

You might not agree with it, but you can see why, after being hooked up with a gang of credit card scammers, she’s tempted into a life of crime. After pulling off a number of scams (although she gets beaten up during one of them), she and her boss, Youcef, become drawn to each other; originally from Lebanon, he’s trying to live his own version of the American Dream by ripping off those wealthier than himself.

Youcef hopes to invest his ill-gotten gains in property, but his involvement with Emily leads to an acrimonious split with his business partner and cousin Khalil, which could spell terror and disaster for all involved.

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“Beautifully crafted”

Patton Ford may be a fledgling film-maker, but he shows real skill to deliver some genuinely tense moments and set-pieces. He also manages to make characters we should hate likeable – Emily and Youcef are, after all, fraudsters targeting the innocent for their own ends, and yet for some reason we end up rooting for them.

Perhaps that’s because the film is as much a social commentary as it is a crime drama. We understand where they’re coming from – we’ve probably all felt frustration after being caught up in a system that is soulless and lacks empathy, although few of us – thankfully – are likely to react in the same way. These are people, Emily in particular, who have been taught the ‘right’ way to behave, but have found that society has swept them aside.

This is a taut, beautifully crafted film. It might not be action-packed, but it’s full of thought-provoking scenes you won’t forget.

Emily the Criminal is released on DVD and Blu-ray on 16th January 2023

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