Editor’s Note: The following contains spoilers for Emily the Criminal.
The list of films that shake their fist against capitalism is practically endless. And the majority of them pit the economic structure in Goliath against a fundamentally good protagonist who generally fails to play David. The main character often begins the film burdened with financial difficulties and lacks the take-no-prisoners mentality to succeed in a dog-eat-dog environment, and ends up being crushed by the weight of their world. Or maybe our virtuous protagonist is seduced by the evils of capitalism, with the lust for success and material excess dominating the virtuous traits they possessed at the start of the film. Criminal Emily takes a different approach, an approach driven by a thought that is perhaps hard for some people to digest. First-time writer/director John Patton Ford seems to think some people are just plain bad. Their calamities do not come from corruption, but from something rooted in their bones that has always been there. The critique of capitalism Criminal Emily it is that it pushes a rotten person to realize a true nature which would have lain dormant if the need for money had not been so overwhelming.
Despite how it plays out like a no-frills psychological thriller, Criminal Emily still has anti-capitalist sentiment at its core. Emily is an art school dropout struggling to pay her student debt and rent, failing in her search for a meaningful career. She is such a planned protagonist of the struggles of capitalism that one would expect her to be played by Greta Gerwig. But the cast of Place Aubrey ends up being a brilliant move by Ford and company. Perhaps no other actress in Hollywood distinguishes between stoic and demonic as well as the former Parks and recreation star. The audience’s uncertainty is what keeps the tension so tense because Emily doesn’t really change as a character throughout the film. Instead, she has a somewhat inverted arc of self-realization.
The film begins by creating the incredibly convincing illusion that Emily is a good person. Every moment that hints at his inner wickedness is framed as reprehensible. The way she derails a job interview in the opening scene seems entirely justified. The interviewer plays a perverted game of cat and mouse as he tiptoes around knowing of a felony conviction he found during a background check. It’s a crime that’s presented as a product of her past life, something she’s since grown from and become more estimable of. Because the crime occurs before the film begins, audiences are inclined to feel sympathy for Emily, believing that the current problem she faces is that society does not allow her to let the past pass. Returning to her own job as a catering delivery girl, she covers the shift of one of her co-workers who has to take her son to baseball practice, showcasing a side of compassion that audiences can continue to relate to. refer to when his nobility seems to be shaking.
Emily’s desperate need for cash leads her to an opportunity where she’s told she can make a quick $200, but the constant “go see” response offered whenever she asks for details implies it must be shady. . Indeed, it is a credit card scam scheme led by a man named Youcef (Theo Rossi), which involves Emily paying for a TV with stolen credit card information. The audience still sees herself in her place as she tries to leave before her feet are shackled. When Youcef stops her as she walks to the door and asks why she is leaving, it seems her sense of entrapment is the only reason she responds saying she can’t know if the scam will work. , and she seems unwilling as she is roped in going through the flight. Every excuse she gives for a questionable action is not only easily justifiable, but it doesn’t occur to the audience that she could be anything other than an unhappy woman thrown into suffocating and unforgiving circumstances.
Emily is pushed into her life of crime by desperation caused by capitalism. He is merciless to those on the path to redemption. A single mistake leaves Emily playing a catch-up game she can’t win, so she decides to break the rules. She understands that this new crime is robbery, not only from the store, but from real people whose hard-fought money is being stolen, but she’s been pushed to the point where she doesn’t feel like it there is a better option. His crime does not appear to be an effort to completely fool the system. It looks like Emily is just trying to get back to the point where she has a fighting chance. But every expression on Plaza’s face is slippery, the perceived looks of exhaustion slowly begin to be understood as those of meanness as her true nature begins to appear around the corner.
Despite a heightened sense of danger and immorality, Emily forges ahead in her budding criminal life. She runs more errands for Youcef, then asks him to teach her the ropes so she can start her own operation. She is the victim of multiple acts of violence and a threat to her life as she continues down a dark road, going much further than any audience member would. But the most alarming thing is that it could stop at any moment. The criminal enterprise she has chosen is one she can escape from whenever she wishes. There is no threat of violent repercussions, no boss forcing him to keep working. As Youcef says when you first meet Emily, “If you want to go, there’s the door”, and that door stays open the whole movie. It’s not some tangible force or logical desire that keeps her chained to the underworld, but a perverse desire for the life she’s been inducted into. The nightmares of capitalism have pushed her down the rabbit hole, but it’s her delight to keep digging deeper despite a rope hanging by her side that she could use to get out. And finally, the public realizes that the title of the film does not refer to his work. It refers to its essence.
Everything that was first perceived as forgivable begins to be re-evaluated and repeated with different connotations. Towards the end of the film, she gets an interview at an advertising agency where her friend works. The interviewer is aware of his past crime and seems to look beyond and attempt to assess Emily’s character. Upon learning that the position would be an unpaid internship, Emily explodes in a way very similar to the opening interview. But this time, the audience sees his outburst of genuine villainy. Although the internship is unpaid, it would lead to a potential job offer in five months if his work was up to par. Thanks to her credit card fraud spree, she had amassed more than enough wealth to get by in those months, enough that hard work was her only obstacle to an admirable career. The path traced at his feet is not easy to walk, but it is the one that so many have walked to make their lives livable.
Yet Emily, never oblivious to the damage her criminal enterprises are inflicting, chooses to explode against the woman who offers her the chance for an honest life, unmasking the delinquency that had always been hidden beneath her cold expression. Emily also ends up leaking the details of the felony charge referenced several times throughout the film: the battery of a boyfriend she had in college. She does not apologize for the violent crime but only regrets that she did not hurt him enough to scare him into not pressing charges. It’s a dark sentiment, but looking at the way Emily has transformed into showing off her malevolent persona, a character who has repeatedly shown a violent disposition, audiences don’t doubt for a second its validity.
Unlike many films that criticize capitalism, Emily is not a protagonist that audiences are meant to understand. She’s no ordinary stand-in, the type of relatable character who leaves room for the audience to step into her shoes. He’s someone alien to most on-screen viewers, an acid that dissolves the preconceived idea that everyone has a good heart. She lets the public know that there are people who do not fit into the utopia created by the optimists. There are those whose greed and malevolence are overwhelming. Ford’s camera follows Emily intimately throughout the film, focusing on Plaza’s face as she walks up the stairs and down the streets, examining the minute movements that tell the whole story. This shifts the film’s focus inward, choosing to complexly examine the nature of Plaza’s disconnected character instead of dissecting society as a whole. It’s a character study far more than a fable, less concerned with the culture that shaped Emily than the elements of her genes that have been present since she was made. It’s scary because it taps into our fears of the incomprehensible, of people whose frameworks are so different from ours that we can’t deploy the same societal structures to guide them. It implants the idea that capitalism does not incite some people to wrongdoing, but rather awakens harmful impulses that would otherwise have lain dormant.
Criminal Emily portrays the evils of capitalism as the evils of humanity. He sees it as a system that pushes people towards the darkness of human nature instead of what their brain tells them is moral. There are good people who crumble under its force, but Ford and Plaza are more interested in how it enchants bad people and encourages them to thrive. Criminal Emily is a gripping film as it looks beyond the foundations of American society and into the hearts of a handful of people whose immorality is allowed to thrive, providing a window into the brains of those who typically keep their lesser tendencies hidden. than desirable.