Emily the Criminal: Safety Not Guaranteed, by David Bax

It’s become increasingly clear that no movie will suffer from having Aubrey Plaza in it. That’s not to say she’s never been in a bad movie–remember that Child’s Play reboot?–but she’s never made any movie worse and she pretty much always makes movies better. So give her a great screenplay and solid direction, as writer/director John Patton Ford has done with Emily the Criminal, and you end up with something special and potent. Ford has plenty to say in his feature debut but Plaza helps him say it without losing sight of the human psychology and drama at the heart of his messaging.

Emily the Criminal is a thriller about a woman who’s so low on options that she agrees to make some quick money illegally and then, once that works, continues to get deeper into credit card fraud and the criminal world that surrounds it. And that’s just how music video veteran cinematographer Jeff Bierman shoots the movie, as a thriller, all sleek, aerodynamic framing and cool lighting.

But there’s also a bit of romance to Emily the Criminal. Not the romance of a life of crime, though there’s that too. I refer to the increased sexual tension between Emily and her protégé in the field of fraud, Youcef (Theo Rossi). Their connection recalls Sebastian Schipper‘s relatively underdiscussed Victoria, from 2015, another movie that questions whether the chemistry between the central couple is real or entirely dependent on their high-risk activities.

Any movie about a regular person getting in over their head in illegal and immoral behavior at least partially qualifies as film noir. Unlike the classic-era noirs, though, which were made under the Production Code, Emily the Criminal has no obligation to pursue its protagonist’s comeuppance. The morality of what she’s doing is left up to the viewer to judge; Ford reserves his point-making for when he’s elucidating the reasons behind Emily’s desperation. Too many movies are coy about money, encumbered with the capitalistic politeness that benefits those at the top of the economy. Emily the Criminal is strikingly frank about Emily’s financial strife, caused by student loans and a bad record and exacerbated every day by a system where the bottom rungs of the ladder are unpaid internships and where companies hire individuals as contract employees to avoid paying benefits and to head unionization off at the pass.

Sometimes it seems as if we’ve reduced the “American dream” to being solely about financial victory and we’ve eliminated any definition of “freedom” other than that meaning freedom from government interference. Emily the Criminal argues that many of us simply seek freedom from the constant hustle and grind. The more difficult that becomes to achieve through respectable means, the more likely we are to chase it via self-destructive ones.

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