Anyone not already convinced that Aubrey Plaza is one of the most fascinating screen presences working simply isn’t paying attention. Few other actresses possess a more carved-out presence, built from a distinctive wry-dry charisma and comedic instincts that frequently flirt with discomfiting anti-humor, which makes a turn toward more dramatic material both inevitable and considerably promising. Ingrid Goes West and Black Bear jointly offered an instructive look at this progression, from pitch-black comedy to something more psychologically nuanced (though still cushioned with a certain genre-ish texture), each submitting further evidence of the actress’s singularity. It’s all the more unfortunate, then, that Emily the Criminal, a would-be taut thriller comfortably positioned to continue Plaza’s evolution and actorly exploration, so mistakes straightforwardness for sleekness, blandly shaped when not being energized by Plaza’s superhuman effort of placing the whole enterprise upon her game shoulders.
Which is to say, the film’s sum is a largely mixed bag of personality and anonymity. Tracing Plaza’s Emily, saddled with debt and unable to find stable work outside of her catering shifts due to a minor criminal record, as she immerses herself in the world of dummy shopping and increasingly internalizes a specifically American greed, John Patton Ford’s film cribs from a certain ‘70s thriller template without juicing the familiar beats in any appealing ways. There’s some detailed texturing early on that keeps proceedings interesting for a while, spending time on the minutiae of the criminal enterprise as Emily is folded into the seedy world, but as the film moves into a back half that mostly seeks to further ratchet the tension and danger of Emily’s spiral, it plays more like an enervated Safdies joint, sans grime. It all smacks of serious filmmaking, never unaccomplished but frustratingly too content to skew toward “good taste” for a film of this ilk. Certainly, that’s at least partly by design, the film’s rhetoric commenting on a classier, professional underworld that takes its cues from the sanctioned criminality of American capitalism’s wealth class. But the effect is mostly flavorless, with Emily the Criminal never indulging the sleaze that would help sell it as a purely genre work nor sufficiently plumbing its discourse for depth rather than mere topicality.
Like Plaza, Theo Rossi does his best to elevate the material, playing Emily’s handler as a chip-on-his-shoulder beta, a man perhaps more ill-suited to the work than those he recruits, soft around the edges. But as it goes with the rest of the film, his force of presence likewise dissipates as the film slogs to its winking conclusion, the character too underwritten to engender much investment by the time his climactic sequence arrives. Plaza, for her part, is the only consistent element here, pitching her familiar acidic comedy toward something more manic, sliding easily between naif and self-destructive fatalist and doing her best to keep the narrative on appealingly unsure footing. Still, there’s only so much she can do. And while Ford seems committed to exposing the ethics of American capital as not blurred but obliterated, a system capable of making criminals of anyone looking to succeed, the material feels notably anemic. Emily the Criminal’s minor set pieces and few suspenseful sequences don’t do much to undermine this reading, pleasantly grounded and low-key in a vacuum but reinforcing the film’s general staidness in function. Plaza does her best to upset this inertia, and there are few better suited to build the heart of your film around, but there’s simply not enough of a pounding pulse here to keep Emily the Criminal from slipping into dull torpor.
Published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 4.