The list of movies that shake their fists at capitalism is practically endless. And the majority of them pit the economic structure as Goliath against a fundamentally good protagonist usually failing to play David. The main character often begins the film burdened with financial struggles and lacks the take-no-prisoners mentality to succeed in a dog-eat-dog environment, and ends up getting crushed by the weight of their world. Or perhaps our virtuous protagonist gets seduced by the evils of capitalism, with the lust for success and material excess overpowering the righteous traits they possessed at the film’s beginning. Emily the Criminal takes a different approach, an approach pushed by a thought that is perhaps difficult for some people to stomach. First-time director writer/director John Patton Ford seems to think some people are just bad. Their calamities don’t come from corruption, but from something ingrained in their bones that has been there all along. The critique of capitalism in Emily the Criminal is that is pushes a rotten person to realize a true nature that would have stayed dormant if the need for money weren’t so overwhelming.
Despite how it unfurls as a no-nonsense psychological thriller, Emily the Criminal still has anti-capitalist sentiment at its core. Emily is an art-school dropout who is struggling to pay student loan debt and rent, failing in her search for a worthwhile career. Its such a blueprinted struggles-of-capitalism protagonist that you would expect her to be played by Greta Gerwig. But the casting of Aubrey Plaza ends up being a brilliant move by Ford and company. Perhaps no other actress in Hollywood toes the line between stoic and demonic as well as the former Parks and Rec star. Uncertainty from the audience is what keeps the tension so taut because Emily doesn’t really change as a character throughout the movie. Instead, she has a somewhat inverted arc of self-realization.
The film begins by creating the incredibly convincing illusion that Emily is a good person. Each moment that hints at her inner vileness is presented as dismissible. The way she derails a job interview in the opening scene feels completely justified. The interviewer plays a perverted cat and mouse game as he tiptoes around knowing about a felony conviction that he found during a background check. It’s a crime that is presented as a product of her past life, something that she has since grown from and become more estimable. Because the crime happens prior to the movie starting, the audience is inclined to feel sympathy for Emily, thinking that the current issue she’s facing is that society is not allowing her to let bygones be bygones. While back at her own job as a food catering deliverer, she covers the shift of one of her coworkers who has to take his son to baseball practice, showcasing a side of compassion that the audience can keep referencing when her nobility appears to tremble.
Emily’s desperate need for money leads her to an opportunity where she’s told she can make a quick $200, but the constant “just go and see” answer offered every time she asks for specifics implies that it must be shady. Indeed, it’s a credit card fraud scheme run by a man named Youcef (Theo Rossi), which involves Emily paying for a TV with stolen credit card info. The audience still sees themselves in her shoes when she attempts to leave before her feet become shackled. When Youcef stops her as she’s heading out the door and asks why she’s leaving, it seems that her feeling of entrapment is the only reason she replies by saying she can’t know whether the scam will work, and she appears to be unwilling as she’s roped back into going through with the theft. Every excuse she gives for a questionable action is not only easily justifiable, but it hardly crosses the audience’s mind that she could be anything else other than an unfortunate woman thrust into suffocating and unforgiving circumstances.
Emily is pushed into her life of crime out of a desperation that capitalism has caused. It is unforgiving to those on the path to redemption. One single mistake leaves Emily playing a game of catchup that she can’t possibly win, so she decides to break the rules. She understands that this new crime is theft, not only from the store but from real people whose hard fought dollars are being swiped, but she has been pushed to the point where she doesn’t feel like there is a better option. Her crime doesn’t seem like an effort to completely cheat the system. It appears that Emily is just trying to get back to the point where she has a fighting chance. But every expression on Plaza’s face is slippery, the perceived looks of exhaustion slowly begin to be understood as ones of wickedness as her true nature starts to peek around the corner.
Despite an increased sense of danger and immorality, Emily forges ahead in her burgeoning life of crime. She goes on more runs for Youcef, then has him teach her the ropes of the trade so she can start an operation of her own. She is the recipient of multiple acts of violence and a threat on her life as she continues down a bleak road, going much further than any audience member would venture. But the most alarming thing is that she could stop at any time. The criminal endeavor she has chosen is one that she could escape from whenever she wants. There are no threats of violent repercussions, no boss forcing her to keep working. As Youcef says upon Emily’s first time meeting him, “If you want to go, there is the door,” and that door stays open the entire film. It’s not any tangible force or logical desire that keeps her chained to the criminal underworld, but a perverse craving of the life she’s been inducted into. The nightmares of capitalism pushed her down the rabbit hole, but it’s her pleasure to keep burrowing further despite a rope hanging by her side that she could use to climb out. And eventually the audience realizes that the title of the movie doesn’t refer to her job. It refers to her essence.
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