Hell hath no fury like a woman who's student loans fall due
dir: John Patton Ford
Emily the Criminal is one of those titles that’s so straight forward that, if you have a mind like mine (and I pray, for all your sakes, that none of you do), you immediately think means it’s meant ironically. It calls Emily one thing, so she must be the opposite of that one thing?
Nah, she is a crim, or at least the character called Emily in this film named after her has her committing a whole raft of crimes. What the flick takes it time to explain, in painstaking detail, is why she feels like she pretty much doesn’t have any alternatives.
First of all, living in LA must be expensive. Second, being American, she has masses of student loans to repay, and they’re not like the HECS / HELP system we have in Australia whose repayments don’t kick in unless you earn over a certain threshold. Where she is at, no matter how little you earn, they’re taking something out of your pay, and the interest is piling up as well.
Another pesky detail is that she’s done serious jail time for a felony conviction. I’m not judging her, but any potential employer would, and as such any of the jobs she might be professionally qualified for or aspire to, are decidedly out of reach.
So she’s earning minimum wage, in a job where she has no employment protections. When she arks up at a manager who pulls a shift from her arbitrarily, he tells her she’s not even an employee; she’s an independent contractor who doesn’t even have a union shop steward to complain to.
America: a nation built on trying to avoid paying people for their labour and their time.
What’s an Emily to do in such circumstances? Well, when the option of making $200 for an hour’s work pops up, of course she’s going to take it. If she’s getting by on minimum wage at her age, that’s the equivalent of 13 hours of work.
And what of Emily herself? As played by Aubrey Plaza, she seems like a no-nonsense kind of person. She’s been through some shit, and she’s got her eye on the prize. The prize is, one imagines, the same brass ring countless others aspire to: money, but also the safety that enough of it can bring. By her skill set and her past she is a talented illustrator, but getting the chance to work as such is even more out of reach than the other jobs. She can’t even get work as a receptionist at a GP clinic.
Still, she shares with those receptionists a certain ruthlessness, a certain eye of the tiger that could hold her in good stead if she doesn’t lose her cool.
If you’ve ever seen Aubrey Plaza in anything you know she completely commits to her characters. She brings a kind of wariness and steeliness that belies whether it’s a comedic or dramatic role. This is definitely a dramatic role, and the flick puts Emily through the ringer.
While there’s no disputing whether Emily is a crim or not, because of the sheer quantity of crimey things she does, as a character study, we at least see reasons for her actions. Like the excuses that many people with psychotic tendencies tend to give in court, the world as constructed around Emily is out to get her: everyone is indifferent to her struggles, no-one gives a damn about her continued survival, and whenever people see an opportunity they try to fuck her up and rip her off.
She’s not paranoid if everyone, in an indifferent way, is out to get her. It also justifies her selfishness, which is exactly what you want in an actor’s showcase like this. It’s less “morally ambiguous” and more “well, at least she’s not as bad as the people around her.”
There used to be lots of movies like this, especially in the era when “crime doesn’t pay” had to be the moral of every bullshit crime drama. People could get to the top of the crime pile over the course of a movie, but they had to pay in the end, either by dying or being jailed forever. One of the prime versions of this story would be less like Scarface, and more like Dead Presidents by the Hughes Brothers: an African-American Vietnam vet returns home to a country that hates him even more than the Vietnamese they were exterminating, gives him no choices, practically forces him into robbing banks, then promptly jails him for life for his troubles.
Sure, there’s structural racism at play as well, but you never get a sense that the main character had any choice in life other than the ones that he takes.
We almost feel like any of Emily’s harshest choices, at moments where she does some pretty hardcore stuff, aren’t ones in which she really had much of a choice. I guess that’s meant to make her seem like less of a selfish villain, and more like a reasonable, ‘normal’ person pushed too far by circumstance, by forces beyond their control.
I don’t buy that completely, but I’m willing to give the character the benefit of the doubt. This plot and this story certainly makes it seem like Emily doesn’t have a broad range of choices before her, but her choices do come across as reasonable in unreasonable circumstances.
A really solid scene involves Emily having an interview with her best friend’s employer (an even more ruthless Gina Gershon) for a proper job with a proper employer. Things rapidly go south when it’s revealed that it’s less a job and more an unpaid internship, but the central conflict is that Gershon’s character, an older woman in an advertising firm that came up in a harsher working environment than what exists now, with Emily selfishly wanting a living wage in order to expend her time and skills for an employer which she’s expected to donate for five to six months.
I mean, how nuts is that? Who can afford to volunteer 8 hours a day 5 days a week? Only people who don’t have to work for a living. What is this nonsense? No wonder America drives people into a life of crime: it’s not for criminal empires and yachts and stuff; it’s just to pay the fucking electricity bill and the rent.
Student loans will be extra.
I haven’t even really mentioned what this crime drama about a criminal is really about: it’s not about credit card fraud, even if that is the main crime committed, it’s about whether crimes committed by crims against other crims really are crimes in the first place? In general if someone breaks into my house and robs me, steals my money out of a safe, I can go to the cops and they can probably do nothing about it unless I know the people who did it.
If crims rob me of the ill-gotten gains from crimes I’ve committed, well, the system works. What if I rob the guys who taught me to crime with the credit cards etc? They can’t go to the cops, so does that make me a hero?
Or is it all ethically murky, but clearly they’re all crims, and they should all face the consequences of their actions?
I’m not the moralising type, but the way it all plays out is unconventional and unpredictable. It’s spiky and unsettling throughout, but smoothly done. Plaza does phenomenally well in a role that seems like it was lovingly written for her, and she’s ably supported by Theo Rossi, inexplicably playing a Lebanese-American literal partner-in-crime who shows her how to do what she does, and who’s the one person who doesn’t bullshit her.
His character of Youcef is deceptively gentle – a pro at hustling the details of their enterprise, but not as certain when it comes to the violent side. That’s not a problem that Emily has, even if she is prone to panic attacks.
In a chilling moment that doesn’t reveal what she was in prison for, but represents to us what might have been the wrong moral for her to learn from her own story: she thinks the mistake that landed her in jail was from not going far enough, and not putting enough of the fear of God or Emily into her victim.
Um, okay. Memo to self – don’t cross Emily or anyone like Emily. In fact don’t cross or double-cross anyone.
Unless they really deserve it.
I thought this was a really tight and keen flick. Really enjoyed the hell out of it.
8 ways in which Emily will destroy you and never feel bad about it out of 10
“If you’re going to yell at me at least put me on the fucking payroll.” - Emily the Criminal