Review By: Jonathan W. Hickman
Director: John Patton Ford
Cast: Aubrey Plaza, Theo Rossi, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Gina Gershon
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 97 minutes
Available in theatrical release
Like many film critics and budding cineastes, I immediately tore into Meg Gardiner and Michael Mann’s novel sequel “Heat 2” when it was released this week. It’s the written follow-up to Mann’s iconic 1995 crime/heist film “Heat.”
While watching “Emily the Criminal,” it was impossible not to think about the novel “Heat 2” and the movie that inspired it. “Emily the Criminal” is the kind of picture, in look and narrative, that shares a kindred spirit with Mann’s work, particularly his 1981 film “Thief.”
Like Mann’s protagonists, Emily is a desperate but intelligent soul pushed to the edge of her sanity--an exceedingly dangerous place to hang out.
We meet Emily as she works a catering job and tries to find better employment. A recent college graduate, her art degree saddled her with $70K in student loan debt; Emily can’t get a job in her field. Not only is it tough to find paying art gigs, most begin as unpaid internships, but she has a criminal record.
In an early sequence, a cool and cruel HR manager asks her if there’s anything in her past that might give them pause before hiring her. He drolly explains that they don’t usually go through the trouble and expense of pulling a background check. Emily reveals that she had a DUI when she was young. Of course, the manager pulls out a file; that background check was indeed run. He thinks he’s cleverly caught her in a lie. And, in fact, he has.
Reeling from the rejection, Emily returns to her catering position. It’s high energy with low pay, not enough even to satisfy the interest on her loans. But a co-worker suggests that she reach out to a mysterious number about becoming something called a “dummy shopper.” She makes the call.
When Emily attends her first dummy shopper meeting, it’s run by Youcef (a fantastic Theo Rossi). He’s Lebanese and cloaked in cocky secrecy that intrigues almost anyone around him. Youcef’s confidence and matter-of-fact delivery of the details of the job convey a slick charisma that isn’t some act. Emily wants to know more about the man and the operation.
A dummy shopper is given a stolen credit card and sent out to make purchases, mainly flat-screen TVs and electronics. Make the purchases, and you’re given $200; buy more, make more. Emily has loans to pay, and given her criminal record, she’s perfectly suited for more, more, more.
As Emily gets deeper into the dummy shopper business, she also draws closer to Youcef. He’s a sensible criminal who works carefully so as not to arouse the suspicion of the authorities. But his relationship with the reckless Emily threatens to end all of his cautions.
“Emily the Criminal” is a crackerjack crime thriller. It’s paced like something Mann might have scripted and shot with the energy of a Safdie picture (their 2019 “Uncut Gems” immediately comes to mind). In his assured feature film debut, writer/director John Patton Ford hits all the right notes, and with Rossi and Aubrey Plaza, he finds an excellent duo to bring his words to life.
Plaza (see “Parks and Recreation,” “Black Bear,” and “Ingrid Goes West”) is fearless here. This ferocious performance should propel her forward. But what I liked about her work as Emily was the ability to transcend the psychopathic aspects of the character and give us something tangible. It’s the way she looks at Youcef that sells the human side.
And her match is Rossi, whose slight build and angular features tease a wiry introverted personality that needs Emily more than she needs him. Their relationship is electric, a direct lightning bolt that is unsettling between them. And when they do get together, you pull for their likely doomed romance. Emily, after all, has bills to pay.
The clunky aspects of the narrative, the idea that one would turn to crime to pay student loans, might not sit well with some viewers, who would never steal. But it makes a cracked bit of sense if you understand Emily’s millennial mindset, a person who was born in the 1980s and ironically raised in the era when Michael Mann made heroes out of thieves.
The look of “Emily the Criminal” is beguiling. Cinematographer Jeff Bierman demonstrates a loose precision with his camera that would be right at home in 1970s cinema. And Ford’s story lends itself to the movement of the camera as it snakes along following Emily’s journey. Our easy feeling of unease (yes, it’s a familiar inconsistency) ratchets up as Bierman and Ford capture ever-tightening imagery. The film is an impressive display of filmmaking confidence from an artist with just one short movie on his directing résumé.
“Emily the Criminal” is a modern crime thriller that tells a timeless story of desperate people doing desperate things.