There is a misconception in society that to succeed people must simply pull themselves up by the bootstraps. The fallacy, of course, is that those who preach this philosophy willfully ignore the many obstacles that hinder some from getting out of their ruts. It is hard to lift that which has been nailed to the floor. This is something the protagonist of Emily the Criminal understands more than most.

Emily (Aubrey Plaza) knows the difficulty of improving her life within a system that seems designed to hold her back. Burdened with massive student loan debt, she is desperate for something that pays better than her current job at a catering company. Unfortunately, an assault charge on her record, a result of an incident involving an abusive ex, does not help her employment prospects. At the end of her rope, Emily’s co-worker hooks her up with an opportunity to make a quick $200 by pulling off a one-time job for brothers Youcef (Theo Rossi) and Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori). The brothers run a credit card scam where they get people to be “dummy shoppers” and buy extensive merchandise.

Despite knowing what the brothers are asking her to do is illegal, Emily decides to give it a shot as a quick stop gap while looking for more reputable employment. Of course, the allure of quick cash becomes as appealing as Youcef himself. Soon Emily is learning the ins and outs of the scam and begins playing her own high-risk game, one where the reward could clear her debts once and for all.

Emily the Criminal

As Emily travels further down the rabbit hole of crime, director John Patton Ford slowly submerges the audience in an ocean of tension rarely letting them up for air. Patton Ford’s film has several things to say about capitalism and inequality in the workforce, including a great scene where Gina Gershon shows up as a woman who has worked her way up the corporate ladder but has differing views than Emily when it comes to free labour. However, Emily the Criminal is more interested in the choice Emily must make once she willingly crosses the moral line.

While Patton Ford’s film does not fully sell the Lady MacBeth style turn that Emily takes in the latter sections of the film, it is captivating to follow the various turns the character’s journey takes. Continuing her string of strong performances, Plaza brings mesmerizing layers to the role. One is always aware that Emily has the option to remain on the straight and narrow path, even if she does not see it that way, however, Plaza makes us feel the sense of desperation that her character embodies.

Plaza’s evolution as Emily is nicely offset by Rossi’s work in the film. As Emily’s unexpected trajectory into the dangerous criminal world hardens her, the cracks in Youcef’s cool demean begin to appear. One realizes that his goals and placement in life may not be so different from Emily. Through the fine work by Plaza and Rossi, Patton Ford’s film allows the audience to ponder not only the frequent exploitation of employees, but also the ways this inequality pushes some to pursue their dreams via questionable means.

Although the film does not quite stick the landing, it is yet another strong showcase of Plaza’s effortless range. Emily the Criminal is a tense and thrilling look at those who society pushes to the brink.