Emily the Criminal – Sundance Review

Written by Cassie Jo Ochoa

Emily the Criminal is deceptively simple. Take a killer script boiled down to the barest of elements, a powerhouse performance from a beloved cult actress, and drench it in an atmosphere that is just bleak enough not to turn off its audience. That description does a disservice to the film as Emily the Criminal soars above and beyond expectations to be genuinely electric. It’s a must-watch for anyone looking for a film that genuinely pushes its subject matter to the brink of audience empathy. 

The film follows Emily (Aubrey Plaza), an artist struggling to get out of a mountain of student loan debt with no other options. When a coworker gives her the number for an easy couple of hundred bucks, she leaps at the opportunity. What follows is one woman’s descent into a criminal underworld where the stakes are high, and the stolen credit card balances are without limits. 

Director John Patton Ford keeps Emily the Criminal as tight as piano wire, barely giving Emily (or the audience) room to breathe. There isn’t a moment of slack during the entire runtime, and Ford forces the audience to keep their eyes on Emily, whether they want to or not. The score by Nathan Halpern is a highlight, delivering the neo-noir vibes that can drive a viewer’s anxiety up a wall. This work sets the stage for Aubrey Plaza to give a career-best performance as Emily. Plaza gets the chance to portray the type of antihero that most actors spend their entire careers chasing, and she knocks it out of the park. Theo Rossi plays off her wonderfully as the man who brings her into the crime world. Megalyn Echikunwoke shines as a high school friend who is always promising to help if the opportunity arises. It all comes back to the remarkably cast Plaza, who gets another chance to demonstrate her strength as a dramatic actress. 

Emily the Criminal could easily sit on the shelves next to films such as Uncut Gems or even Nightcrawler, and it wouldn’t be surprising to hear other people make similar comparisons. These comparisons do the film a disservice, as Emily the Criminal is so singular in its focus that to reduce it to a derivative is missing the director’s intent. My only regret is I wasn’t watching this with an audience.

Grade: A

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