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Aubrey Plaza navigates L.A.'s gangster underworld in "Emily the Criminal."

Aubrey Plaza’s transition to dramatic actress continues apace with Emily the Criminal, which opens this week. Some actors who spend years on a sitcom, like she did with Parks and Recreation, learn to always make the safe play and go for the punchline. Clearly, Plaza has hard edges that can’t be filed down, and she makes this crime thriller into a blade sharp enough to slip into your gut without you noticing.

She plays Emily Bonetto, an art-school graduate in southern California who’s working various menial jobs that she can’t move on from because of an aggravated assault conviction. Drowning in school debts, she acts on a tip from a co-worker and does a $200 one-time gig as a “dummy shopper,” buying a TV with a stolen credit card and a fake driver’s license and delivering it back to her boss Youcef (Theo Rossi). After she pulls a richer job with a Cadillac despite the sellers getting wise and bloodying her nose, he promotes her to embossing stolen numbers onto credit cards.

First-time feature director John Patton Ford keeps this movie at a lean and mean 93 minutes as Emily ventures further into organized crime and grows intoxicated with the confidence that comes from finally making her own money. When she drives that Cadillac away from the pissed-off sellers, he anchors the camera in the passenger seat next to Emily and stays on her terrified face, showing us that this woman very much does not want to be in a car chase. Even better is the extended set piece that comes later on, when some buyers follow Emily to her apartment, bust down her door, and hold a boxcutter to her throat as they rob her. Rather than scare her straight, the experience awakens some vindictive part of her, and she wastes little time in taking revenge, helped by the fact that the robbers are dumb enough to linger in their truck parked across the street after they leave.

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Emily may say she wants to be as far from danger as possible, but it’s unsettling how quickly she turns to violence when she’s thwarted. When Youcef’s cousin and business partner (Jonathan Avigdori) steals all his money and his merchandise, she’s the one who gets him up off his ass and breaks into the cousin’s heavily guarded mansion with Youcef to take his stuff back by force. None of it would be so memorable were it not for Plaza’s steely determination to get hers in a world that presents her with no other option. Emily the Criminal ends with a scene that plays out entirely in Spanish and brings Emily full circle, repeating her criminal career in a place far from L.A. She starts out the film as someone who’s salvageable, but what her life becomes, she’s going to live.

Emily the Criminal
Starring Aubrey Plaza and Theo Rossi. Written and directed by John Patton Ford. Rated R.

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