‘Emily the Criminal’ Review: Superb Crime Drama Available on Netflix

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Emily the Criminal is the promising feature debut of writer-director John Patton Ford, and I say “promising” because this guy knows how to tell a lean, tense story involving realistic characters in a beautifully paced 93 minutes.

Emily is Emily Benetto (a superb Aubrey Plaza), a world-class screw-up who’s amassed $70,000 in student loan debt along with a felony conviction. When we meet Emily, she’s lying to a potential employer (which kills her chance at a decent job). She returns to work as a harried, “independent contractor” — translation: an underpaid delivery girl exploited by a catering company.

(Warning: The trailer gives too much away.)

Her luck appears to take a turn when one good deed begets another. A co-worker slips her the reference she will need for a $ 200-an-hour job.

The job ends up being credit card fraud. For $200, all Emily has to do is use a fake credit card and fake driver’s license to purchase a high-end flat-screen TV.

What happens from here is equal parts suspenseful, interesting, and unpredictable, but in a way that also makes sense — which is plotting at its best.

What works even better than Plaza’s glower power, the tight plotting, and the pace are the characters, most especially Emily.

In this fascist and pedantic Age of Woke, you expect 105-pound Emily to punch out 185-pound guys and be a virtuous victim of Predatory Capitalism.

Ford is too smart for that.

If Emily’s a victim of anything, it’s her own bad life choices. Her $70,000 student loan is for an art degree. Dumb. Her felony conviction is for hitting a boyfriend. Dumb. She lies to potential employers. Dumb. She does illegal drugs. Dumb.

But she’s not dumb. In fact, her resourcefulness is one of her best qualities and what gets her out of more than one jam involving the aforementioned 185-pound guy.

In other words, Emily is a fascinating character, and what makes her fascinating are her flaws and contradictions, and weaknesses. Emily is no Mary Sue, no Girl Power Stand-In, and no boring Rey from Star Wars. Although her goal is to become a better criminal, she’s still a protagonist we side and empathize with. Why? Not because she’s a criminal but because she is relatably human. And even as a criminal, Emily struggles and makes mistakes. You can’t not root for her. Along the way, you also hope she will figure it out, get her act together, and grow up. In other words, you’re with her all the way, even after she makes the reckless and unnecessary mistake that delivers a shocking third act.

Twenty years ago, Emily the Criminal would play like another terrific genre picture. That’s not a criticism. I’m not grading Emily the Criminal on a curve. My point is this: in today’s cinematic world of terrible filmmaking, Emily the Criminal feels like a revelation, a breath of fresh storytelling air that dares to explore human nature as it is.

Sure, Ford has plenty to say about the horrors of what we might call the “gig economy.” How it exploits independent contractors who enjoy none of the protections that come with being a full-fledged employee. There’s certainly something predatory about that. But Ford says this through story and theme, as opposed to a lecture or some off-putting moment where Emily stands up for herself, i.e., tells the audience what to think.

A flawed protagonist. A racially diverse cast where gender and skin color do not telegraph the content of character. A full and satisfying story told in 93 minutes (including end credits). Grounded performances (Theo Rossi is another stand-out). A tour of a subculture. A conclusion that makes perfect sense when you rewind the movie in your head. A director with something to say who uses subtext instead of text.

This is how movies used to be made. This is how it’s supposed to be done.

Other than Top Gun: Maverick and The Northman, Emily the Criminal is the only 2022 movie I look forward to seeing again.

Yes, there is something worthwhile in Netflix’s $5 billion pile of garbage.


Follow John Nolte on Twitter @NolteNC. Follow his Facebook Page here.


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