Sundance mainstay Aubrey Plaza utilises her spiky, off-kilter presence well in this lean thriller, as a young woman hamstrung by a few costly mistakes in her past. Unable to find a decent job, and crushed by a mountain of college debt for a course she never completed, she’s limps by in gig economy roles, not even eating into the interest on her loans. A co-worker tells her about a swift $200 to be made as a ‘dummy shopper’; someone who makes store purchases using stolen credit card details. When the first time goes well, she throws herself into the scam, but finds herself in the middle of a conflict between fraudster brothers Youcef (Theo Rossi) and Khalil (Jonathan Avigdori).

Plaza has made a career of finding the nuances and the empathetic sides of difficult, pugnacious characters, and it’s thanks to her that Emily the Criminal feels like more than the sum of some basic parts. We never find much about Emily as a person beside her past misdemeanours, with Plaza ably expanding on the few crumbs thrown to us in writer/ director John Patton Ford’s sparse, noir-influenced script. She also, crucially, makes us care. Because as easy as it is to sympathise with her predicament, she chooses a path that is ambiguous at best.

It does help that LA as written by Ford is a shark tank that seems gloomy even in the sunshine. Therefore Emily often appears as the least egregious person in the room by default. Even her best friend Lucy (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is painted as being, if not a little gauche about her career success, then being frankly clueless about Emily’s situation. This is best exemplified in a job interview Lucy sets up for Emily that turns out to be for an unpaid internship for a sharkish exec played with gusto by Gina Gershon. It’s a volatile, uncomfortable scene that recalibrates our sympathies back to Emily after a plunge into some surprisingly full-fanged ruthlessness.

For the most part Emily the Criminal works as a stripped-back thriller – marrying the spartan efficiency of a Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) with the kind of sustained claustrophobic tension that the Safdie brothers (Good Time, Uncut Gems) are so good at – without quite hitting the heights of either. The result is a breakneck ride that’s over before you realise that our anti-heroine has been forged through context rather than character. The satirical tilts are good and Ford’s staging of action with limited means are hugely impressive. It isn’t however one that will live long in the memory, and it feels like those who have called this Aubrey Plaza’s finest role are rather overstating the case. Although she demonstrates another aspect of her considerable talent, she has shone brighter in richer, trickier scripts like Ingrid Goes West and Black Bear.

Screening as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022