Emily the Criminal review – a riveting tale of lawlessness and desperation

By Lori Meek
Published: December 11, 2022 (Last updated: last month)


A brilliant piece of art that’s particularly relevant to today’s world.

We review the film Emily the Criminal, which does not contain any major spoilers.

John Patton Fords directorial debut, Emily the Criminal, first premiered in February this year at the prestigious Sundance Film festival, where it was met with rave reviews. The movie had a cinema run last summer before finally being released on streaming platforms, including Netflix for U.S. audiences and Prime Video for U.K.-based viewers. Aubrey Plaza (The White Lotus) stars as the titular Emily in this tale of lawlessness and desperation. 

The film starts by introducing our lead, a woman who lives in our society where someone’s youthful mistakes leave a permanent mark on their future. Emily never graduated from her fancy art college, but she has $70,000 in student debt to show for it. She can’t get a high-paying job because of a previous criminal record, and she’s seething with anger at the unfairness of it all.

We meet her at yet another failed job interview when she can’t keep her cool after the recruiter tricks her into revealing her past troubles with the police. Her housing situation is relatable for many millennials as her finances are forcing her to live with roommates who are practically strangers. She also works on the exploitative side of the gig economy, where her food delivery boss is happy to treat her as an employee and pay her peanuts but claims she’s an independent contractor whenever it’s convenient.

Needless to say, Emily’s life isn’t exactly where she’d have liked it to be. Adding salt to the wound is her friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who keeps making drunken promises she never keeps to help Emily get a job interview at her high-rolling marketing firm. 

When coworker Javier (Bernardo Badillo) gives her a phone number with the promise that she can earn $200 in one hour as a “dummy shopper”, the protagonist is intrigued. Upon arriving for the “job opportunity,” a soft-spoken Youcef (Theo Rossi) introduces Emily to credit card fraud. All she has to do is use a stolen credit card number to purchase a television and not get caught. And voila! Money in an envelope. As the movie progresses, Emily learns more about this “business” from Youcef and becomes better and better at it. 

Emily the Criminal is a poignant look at how life circumstances may lead a person to pursue illegal ways of making a living. When Emily first decides to get involved in Youcef’s business, she’s worried about getting caught, but her need for money supersedes anything else, even her personal safety. Despite the electrifying chemistry between Emily and Youcef, she doesn’t allow herself to be sidetracked from her financial goals. The constant close-ups of Emily’s face force the viewer to take this journey with her. We may not like her perspective, and we may not agree with her actions, yet we are not allowed to look away. 

For her performance as Emily, Aubrey Plaza won several accolades, including Best Actress at the Annapolis Film Festival. Her portrayal of a female anti-hero is both convincing and entrancing. Characters like Emily are rare to come by in film, specifically a female who ultimately puts her personal interests above all else. And when women are allowed to be anti-heroes, Hollywood makes sure they are brutally punished by the end of the run time, making this particular feature a breath of fresh air. 

Emily The Criminal is a brilliant piece of art that’s particularly relevant to today’s world. It’s almost terrifyingly realistic and shows how far a person is capable of going when society turns its back on them. 

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