'Emily the Criminal' review: Aubrey Plaza weaponized in feverish drama

Playing a broke artist who falls into a life of crime, Plaza is scary good in John Patton Ford's debut feature.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Aubrey Plaza is searing in "Emily the Criminal," an intense drama rife with social commentary about the fraying edges of today's world and the tiny push it takes to send someone over the line. 

Plaza is Emily, the criminal of the title, a broke New Jersey art school dropout living in Los Angeles who is saddled with a burdensome $70,000 in student loan debt. She works food service to make ends meet but her attempts to land a better job are stifled because of an unfortunate incident in her past: she was convicted of aggravated assault several years earlier.  

Aubrey Plaza in "Emily the Criminal."

Emily, who shares an apartment with two roommates, gets an offer from a co-worker to make $200 for an hour's worth of work. She's intrigued.

Turns out the job is part of a stolen credit card ring, and she's handed a credit card and asked to buy a TV from a big box store and wheel it out to the parking lot. That's it. She completes the task and is handed a cool $200. She asks if she can do more. 

That's all it takes, and Emily is soon in deep in the world of credit card fraud, and is cranking out fraudulent cards herself along with the help of her boss Youcef (Theo Rossi in a memorable performance). He, too, started small, looking to make just enough money to afford his dream home, but now finds himself entwined in the life. 

Plaza never plays Emily as an innocent — the chip on her shoulder from having to explain her past is evident from the first scene, a job interview that quickly goes off the rails — but she shows the desperation and frustration of trying to get ahead when she can't even get on first base. She soon starts shedding layers of social niceties, and finds herself capable of raw, primal ferocity when her survival instincts are called upon to kick in. She's fantastic. 

Plaza's eyes, proficient in delivering obliterating side glares in projects ranging from "Parks and Recreation" to "Ingrid Goes West," are weaponized here, indicators of Emily's short fuse after hitting a wall and finding no other way around it.

Writer-director John Patton Ford, in his debut feature, shows both the allure and the danger of get-rich-quick schemes, and how dabbling a toe in the criminal underworld can lead to diving into the deep end. If everybody's stealing, how long before you steal back? "Emily the Criminal" shows that grace period may be shorter than you think.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama 

'Emily the Criminal'

GRADE: B

Rated R: for language, some violence and brief drug use

Running time: 96 minutes

In theaters