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Thread: EMILY THE CRIMINAL (John Patton Ford 2022)

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    Jul 2002
    SF Bay Area

    EMILY THE CRIMINAL (John Patton Ford 2022)



    An angry young white woman with heavy student loan debt and a record, driven to crime

    Emily the Criminal is a taut thriller that delivers a powerful lead with absorbing details about petty crime and strong social criticism about Millennials' diminished expectations, all of which makes for a riveting combination. Message to Biden: forgive college loan debt now, it could turn graduates to desperation like Aubrey Plaza's Emily, a young woman so angry about her low prospects, employers' exploitation, and financial burdens she gradually turns into a professional criminal. (We are not asked to admire, but to sympathize.) Coming from minor roles in dismissible movies and a comedy career, Plaza gets a chance to be passionately badass here and delivers in every scene and closeup. This is an impressive debut for John Patton Ford as a writer-director. Whatever small flaws there are don't stop this movie from keeping us on the edge of our seats and making us think.

    The first scene is a job interview that goes south for Emily. A talented artist, though she stopped art school, she would like a job using that skill. She tries to hide a felony conviction and ends up furious because the interviewer hides that he's run a background check. Next we see her as a food preparer in an anonymous restaurant kitchen. Later we learn she's not regular staff so the supervisor considers himself free to impose arbitrary, cruel hours on her, gloating that she has no union protection.

    Somehow a coworker refers her to a gig elsewhere leading to the next sequence. It turns out to be a one-time job as a euphemistically named "dummy shopper" and getting "$200 for an hour's work." The guy running this is one of several Lebanese cousins, Youcef (Theo Rossi, Juan Carlos 'Juice' Ortiz of FX's "Sons of Anarchy"), who processes the recruits, and Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori), in the background, menacingly. Up front Youcef explains the catch: that participants will be doing something illegal, buying big-ticket audiovisual equipment with cloned credit cards with stolen numbers plus fake supporting driver's licenses. Getting away with this turns out to be rough but Emily does it, scoring her first badass points. She gets to take home a machine to cut new credit cards - introducing us to the nitty-gritty of this fraud scheme.

    They only have to do it once, but Emily comes back and they offer her a harder job with ten times the payoff, $2,000 for buying and leaving with an illegally bought car in eight minutes, before a trace on the check runs. This is rougher - ridiculously rough - but Emily gets away with it too, and this brings her closer to Youcef. They connect. He seems "nice." He has lots of dough, more than she imagined, but seemingly all he wants is to fix up apartments. And he's got a loving mom (Sheila Korsi).

    Things get intimate, and also rough and dangerous. Emily immediately graduates from pepper spray to a taser weapon and adds a box cutter. She might not survive without them in several encounters. The emphasis here isn't on violence but it's there. The danger inherent in the crimes is magnified by the fact that Youcef's cousins don't like his intimacy with Emily.

    Emily the Criminal is harsh and rapid in its forward movement. Scenes are cut off and jump from one time and location to the next, but it's all straight forward. It's simple, and at times has both an improvisational and a documentary, vérité look and feel. This is underlined by a lot of angular closeups - repeatedly ones on Aubrey Plaza's face - and by a score by Nathan Halpern that is so minimal much of the time there is none, or only menacing beats. It is not a beautiful movie but it's an effective one. The Variety review by Amy Nicholson, the least favorable in the Metacritic assessment, argues the whole film is "distanced from its taciturn subject." Richard Brody in his back-of-The-New-Yorker review acknowledges the "shadow world of workaday grifters" is depicted here in "fascinating detail," but calls the feature as a whole "mundane" and "undistinguished."

    These I think are misreadings. The "mundane" or "undistinguished" feel is like that of the Safdie brothers, which is gruelingly draggy in both Good Time and Uncut Gems, but still masterful and original in its way. How you can see Emily as "taciturn" or the closeup-intense coverage of her character as "distant" is hard to see, but sometimes good reviewers get things wrong. (Where Nicholson is right is that Emily benefits in her scams from being female and white: and this is important; it makes her angrier.) This time the perennial Rex Reed in the Observer is on the money with his rave of this stark treatment of "the dark side of capitalism" that's "energizing" because it's so "keenly observed and uniquely competent," adding up to "a tense and engaging thriller that looks and feels distinctively different."

    It would be nice to end there but unfair to this very promising new director not to point out some weak spots. Of course, speaking of grifters, this movie hasn't the pizzazz or rich screenplay of Stephen Frears' masterful 1990 feature of the same name, doesn't delve engagingly into a world of petty crime. But this is closer to documentary, with a rough indie passion like the Safdies'. There is a subplot of Emily's posher girlfriend from school - in Bayonne, New Jersey, a vaguely grim background - Lucy (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who seems to promise to help Emily get into her "artistic" corporate marketing gig, which seems to backfire and be a betrayal. None of that quite rings true. It's also disappointing to present "Lebanese" immigrant characters (and a few words of Arabic) using actors who are all American-born and seem Latino. We deserve better than that in this day and age and in a film that so clearly strives for authenticity. But still, the experience John Patton Ford's film delivers is both meaningful and intense. (I recognize Rossi is of partial Arab descent and thhe film was made under great pressure. ) It will be very interesting to see what he does next, and ditto for Aubrey Plaza, who has earned standalone status now for sure.

    Emily the Criminal, 93 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2022, showing at other festivals including Calgary, San Francisco, Sidney, Jerusalem and Melbourne. US release from Aug. 12, 2022. Screened for this review at AMC Kabuki 8, San Francisco Aug. 20. Metacritic rating: 75%.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 08-21-2022 at 05:51 PM.


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