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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

Emily The Criminal

An Urgent Noir LA Thriller

Stability isn’t a gem that can be dug out of the mines anymore. Security exists for the very lucky ones but stability is long gone. We’re all too used to the chaos. It’s frightening to admit but I don’t know how we’d all do without it at this point.

Emily Benetto (Aubrey Plaza in a career-best performance) is backed into a corner with no way out. Chaos is not overwhelming but tiring for her. Tiring due to its predictability. Burdened with massive student debts for an art degree she didn’t even get and a felony criminal record potential employers can taunt her with whenever they feel like it, Emily is checked out. She’s delivering food as an independent contractor for a company like Grubhub. Carrying hot lasagnas in hard tin foiled packages for wealthy people in suits in luxury glass offices isn’t making much of a dent in her long-term financial problems. She’s ready to leave LA to move in with her stepdad in New Jersey much to the protests of her wealthy friend Liz (Megalyn Echikunwoke).

Before she can orchestrate her leave, she is introduced through a coworker to a credit card fraud ring where she can make money as a dummy shopper. After an initially inconvenient start, she befriends one of the rings leading organizers Youcef (Theo Rossi). She gets Youcef to teach her how to make the cards herself and she starts making enough for her and Youcef to partner up together to the disapproving chagrin of his shady cousins.

The criminal underworld within Emily The Criminal is frightening. The people who underestimate her are scarier than any cliche mob head that this script was smart enough not to write. Reality is always worse. The film is relatively simple yet very well structured, complex, and thrilling. It’s a societal commentary as well as a well-put-together character study, particularly within its character dynamics.

The relationship between Emily and Youcef was really well thought out because it’s based on mutual convenience and getting what they need from each other but in a way that’s honest and not selfish. There are many moments between them that in another film would be a disaster but because it’s them it actually somehow works. By the time their relationship becomes physical, they’re both slowly starting to crawl out from the shackles of their circumstances, and a point of personal empowerment and mutually validating self-worth has been reached for both of them.

Their scene of sexual fulfillment is beautiful because it’s raw. They’re both tired, sore, aching, starving bodies that get lost in one another and for a moment find needed warmth. Nathan Halpern’s miraculous score reflects this with such tender devotion. Their dynamic isn’t the great romance of the century but it’s a much more honest relationship than a lot of what we see on screen and even though they’re not “together” together, the respect they have towards each other is real.

The same cannot be said for Liz. She genuinely likes Emily who she went to high school and then art school but she doesn’t care about her enough as she pretends to. She tries to get Emily a job at her ad agency but the interview goes poorly when Emily finds out it’s an unpaid internship. Emily loses her cool when Liz’s snotty boss calls her spoiled and Liz looks truly embarrassed by Emily. Emily is the struggling millennial who’s truly trying her best. Just the sound of the tin foil as Emily delivers food will sound like nails scratching a chalkboard for every working class person in this country. It’s almost as though Liz keeps her on a retainer so she can feel better about herself. As though having a friend like Emily makes her a good person.

Maybe in different circumstances, Liz could be a better friend but because of her privilege, she doesn’t understand that empathy can be expressed outside of opportunity. Personal empowerment and self-sufficiency are very important values but sometimes, people do need to be taken care of just for a little bit and Liz never takes on that level of responsibility. Sadly, we do live in a society that just loves to see women fight with each other and pick each other apart. Emily The Criminal doesn’t portray the toxicity of women for distrustful entertainment value nor does it suggest what should be done about it. It’s just showing us what happens between too many of them every day.

Words are twisted, opportunities are stolen, threats are made and eventually, Emily and Youcef have to take matters into their own hands on a physical level both of them were hoping to avoid. Emily is much more risk comfortable than Youcef. An immigrant from Lebanon who’s trying to support his loving mother, his fury towards failure is more out of heartbreak and shame than an inconvenience.

Emily is Youcef’s sounding board by this point and unlike Liz, she’s happy to be that person as she tries to get Youcef to understand why they have to keep fighting. “We’re serious people. They should be scared of us. Motherfuckers just keep taking from you until you make the goddamn rules yourself.” He looks at her with a face of agreement and heartbreak as he confirms Emily’s request to confront their violent betrayers “You’re a very bad influence”.

Emily The Criminal ends with a triumph but a price has to be paid first. A brutal price. Sometimes, you can’t save everyone and sometimes, you have to make decisions in a few seconds with no time to think. Emily The Criminal is a noir LA thriller with an urgency that resembles the thirst of someone minutes away from dying from dehydration in the hottest weather on record. They’ll surrender to death but their thirst is still just as desperate.

Phillips, M. (2022). ‘Emily the Criminal’ review: In a tough, lean LA crime story, Aubrey Plaza charges it all the way. newstimes. Retrieved August 22, 2022, from

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