Criminally Good

I have to admit I go out to the movies far less than I did pre-COVID, but I still watch my share of them on streaming networks, and nothing I’ve seen all year compares to the tight, harrowing L.A. thriller by John Patton Ford called Emily the Criminal. Currently on Netflix, it’s my favorite film of 2022.

Aubrey Plaza, famous for playing the snarky office girl in Parks and Recreation, a host of quirky independent features and her current role in season two of The White Lotus, has never been better, and carries the film with unflappable ease. Plaza stars as Emily Benetto, a well-intentioned but troubled L.A. woman trying to dig herself out of student debt by landing a decent paying job. and soon “breaks bad” in desperate, inevitable fashion. 

After an interview with a respectable company goes south due to a past DWI charge, Emily’s friend at the high-end food delivery company she works part-time for gives her a useful job lead: a way to make a “quick thousand dollars.” It turns out to be a fraudulent credit card scam operation out in the Valley, which she is reluctant to join but finally agrees to dip her foot into. Emily has a taste for the dangerous, and every deeper dive she takes making “purchases” for her contact Youcef (Theo Rossi) brings her more cash, a fleeting relationship, and life-altering stress that finally comes to a head.

At a mere hour and 36 minutes, Emily the Criminal doesn’t waste one scene or frame of film on talky character development; all we see are Emily’s actions, reactions, and then more actions. We get everything we need to know about her feelings through Plaza’s engaging poker face and fearless expressions. Ford is both writer and director, and his neo-documentary style, masterful efficiency, and cohesiveness is evident from the first scene to the last. Using virtually no music, he creates a palpable tension in scene after scene as we experience what Emily is going through. The movie also has one of the best explorations of the sinister scam world now plaguing us more than ever, (at least the best since the incredible Adam Sandler/Philip Seymour Hoffman telephone battle in the underrated Punch Drunk Love). 

Plaza’s patented dry sarcasm is pleasantly muted in Emily the Criminal, and for once she has an opportunity to just plain act. I watched this movie four days ago, and it may be years before it’s out of my head.


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