In one memorable scene of many, Emily, the film’s protagonist, once an aspiring artist, now an independent catering contractor, is told by her employer, “I’m sorry, are you an employer? No, you’re an independent contractor. So quit talking like you got rights and go back to work.” Director John Patton Ford’s debut feature Emily the Criminal rips the scabs off the wounds of disillusionment, of dead-end opportunities, and the capitalist dystopia.
Emily, played by producer Aubrey Plaza, is beleaguered by mounting student debt and a string of unsuccessful job interviews and hindered by a DUI charge. When a colleague connects her with an opportunity to earn extra cash, she begins a journey that will change her life forever. She’s invited to participate in an illegal scheme, purchasing goods with a stolen credit card. The scam is run by mid-level criminal Youcef (Theo Rossi). In spite of her qualms over the moral implications, Emily is seduced by the earning potential and encourages Youcef to mentor her.
Speaking about the story with IndieWire’s Kate Erbland, the director said, “When I started writing this script, I was at a point in my life where I felt like I had done everything right technically. I had always been a good student, I’d never got in trouble, I went to school. […] I felt like I’d been misled. I felt like I’d followed the rules, and suddenly you reach a point where you realise, ‘Oh, the rules were by somebody who wants to profit off me. The rules were not written for me to thrive.'”
Ford’s protagonist is an emotional extension of himself. She’s a prism through which he projects his own disillusionment, and challenges the fading pride of the “American Dream” that’s wrapped up as an idealist aspiration. In Emily the Criminal, it’s available for purchase on the black market, the “Dream” an act of deceptive and secretive self-preservation.
The question that confronts Emily is whether her integrity and ethics are too high a price to pay. It’s unlikely the film will achieve much with audiences other than to reinforce cynical belief in the system. The director uses his feature début as an act of condemnation and finds a voice through cinema that will resonate with others who share these frustrations.
Indian lawyer and political activist Mahatma Gandhi recognised poverty as a form of violence, and Emily’s experiences echo this broader definition of aggression. She elicits the audience’s sympathy because she’s the victim of an absence of social forgiveness. She’s impeded from improving her financial self-reliance and accessing opportunities for professional progression that provide the means for the basic human need of security.
In an explosive job interview late in the film, we learn more of Emily’s backstory – how she cared for her grandmother and educated herself. These positive character traits are redacted by a mistake. Ford escalates our feelings of sympathy when she’s offered an internship – unpaid, but teased with the possibility of permanent paid employment. The director continues to tap into the frustrations of the objectification of a person to be profited from.
The film is a cinematic expression about the hypocrisy of accountability and how it ties into opportunity. In Trump’s US presidency and Boris Johnson’s premiership as UK Prime Minister, we see two morally dubious men hold the highest offices in their respective nations. That touches upon the inequality of accountability that is biased towards gender, race, and economics. Allegations of bullying and sexual harassment did not thwart Trump’s election, nor did evidence of Johnson’s dismissal for lying in previous employment and his unscrupulous character prevent his ascendancy.
Admittedly, these are extreme comparisons about the severe bias and privilege that compromises our social moral fabric. Positioned in the moral shades of grey, however, the sympathy Emily elicits pushes such a comparison toward an emotionally black and white response. Ford questions the idea of whether we’re solely responsible for our own actions if others influence our fate. Here the conversation begins to address freedom of choice and free will. The director, however, is hesitant to explore the themes directly, and herein lies the film’s limitations.
Emily the Criminal is an entertaining thriller, and true to genre cinema it conveys the anxieties of our times. It serves as a look into the soul of not only America but societies across the world. Ford is not searching for answers, nor is he directly interrogating the subject. Should he? No, cinema is meant to function as a catalyst to motivate discussion. It’s not essential to ask and answer questions by scrupulously interrogating the themes and ideas, yet, Ford effectively crafts a story with a message.
The two should not be at the expense of the other but run in parallel. Emily the Criminal is layered storytelling. It’s not dramatically immersive. Instead, it’s cold and distant, playing out like a fantasy – a response to the director’s personal frustrations. We watch Emily struggle, both with the reality of her honest life, and the tussle with her ethics when forced to decide whether to turn to crime. We watch her evolve with resiliency. Do we condone or disapprove of her choices?
Ford doesn’t ask us to judge. Rather, he invites viewers to consider the reasons for Emily’s choices. The story deliberately complicates the moral simplicity of right or wrong. Emily the Criminal is driven by understanding, not judgement. It’s a statement about the difficult choices people are forced to make by a broken capitalist society, and how an immoral choice does not define the person as immoral. The story suggests that Emily and Youcef act the way we’ve all been primitively wired to: for self-preservation.
Ford’s film confronts inequality as it relates to accountability. The issue goes to the heart of the justice system, where before the law everyone is clearly not equal. The rules of society are designed to devalue and disempower the majority. Without an intellectual tenacity towards the themes and ideas, Emily the Criminal has a conscience, and it gives voice to those who are rarely heard.