Emily the Criminal, John Patton Ford’s directorial debut, is a kind of spiritual sequel to Ingrid Goes West. Once again, Aubrey Plaza plays a Los Angeles immigrant, and once again she’s dislocated in her new environment, although this time around the focus is less on social media than on precarious labour. Emily Benetto, Plaza’s character, has $70 000 in college debt, and is on the verge of returning home to Bayonne, New Jersey, when her friend Liz, played by Megalyn Echikynwoke, offers to get her a job in an advertising firm headed by Alice, played by Gina Gershon. Although Emily graduated from art school, she’s been forced to find work in food delivery, since she has a minor criminal record, making it hard to get jobs at high-end companies. As she prepares for her interview at Liz’s firm, one of her co-workers gives her the number to a group that steals credit card data and hires “dummy shoppers” to buy products with it. Not only does Emily excel at dummy shopping, but she falls for Youcef, the leader of the operation, played by Theo Rossi, and starts to wonder whether this might be a more efficient and remunerative way to pay off her debt than a prospective marketing job.
Ford thus charts three distinct economies over the course of the film, all of which overlap to form a uniquely precarious vision of Los Angeles labour. The first of these is the internship economy, and while this plays the smallest role in the screenplay, narrative-wise, it’s the motor engine for the other two. While Emily grows more attached to her life as a dummy shopper, she still holds out hope for the design position that Liz promises, which becomes a fantasy horizon for the film, a place where a liveable income might occur. She’s doubly shocked, then, when she realises that the “job” is actually a six-month internship (at least) that will prevent her from continuing to make money from her food delivery work, let alone her dummy shopping. Discovering that this job is an internship is the catalyst for Emily committing full-time to credit card fraud, which in turn ushers in the denoument of the film.
Alongside this internship economy, Emily the Criminal ponders the role of Hollywood, and the image economy of Los Angeles, in an age of precarious labour. In essence, being a dummy shopper means being an actor – looking cool and collected as you wait for a credit card transaction that might not go through, or that might be pinged for involving stolen data. Emily is so good at this performance that she’s quickly bumped up in the dummy shopper world, and allocated to tasks that require her to wait for eight minutes, rather than a few seconds, for credit cards to be checked and cleared. Dummy shopping also largely subsists on electronic goods, especially widescreen televisions, which are so in demand that Emily soon has to hit as many stores as possible, while making sure to avoid any store in a single week. Her labour thus subsists on the creative and strategic recirculation of images around Los Angeles, much as the machine used for forging credit cards looks like an old slide projector. Hollywood dreams are deflected into the market in stolen televisions, while an older sense of cinematic performance is dispersed into so many fugitive and illicit small-screen experiences.
However, both of these economies are eventually subsumed into the driving force of the film – the delivery economy, which invests Los Angeles’ highways with a new precarity and intensity. As in the Dardennes’ Seraing, the highway system here brims with an almost mystical potency, opening up great vacuums of space that invite delivery workers to lean into their vortical flows. Most of the film is set at the dynamic delivery interface – picking up, dropping off, meeting or interacting at the curb – which Emily learns to navigate with more and more fluidity. When we meet her, she works for a high-end food delivery service that specialises in corporate events. Conversely, the main blemish on her record is a DUI for running a red light. Ironically, dangerous driving has consigned her to work out of her car for the foreseeable future, as we learn in the aborted job interview that opens the screenplay.
While dummy shopping may subsist on television sales, its motor engine – pun intended – also revolves around automobile travel. As soon as Emily proves she can deal with TVs, she’s bumped up to cars, and asked to use a fake credit card to purchase a Ferrari from a shady company. The dealer only cottons on to her fraud as she’s stepping into the car, and starts questioning her as she sets her eyes on the exit gate, engine idling, ready to go. Finally, the dealer fights her, door-half open, poised on the brink of a getaway, as she guns it, gets out, and prompts a high-speed chase. The precarious space around credit card transactions is now physicalised as the precarious flows of the Los Angeles highway, which Emily tries to find in a maze of back streets before finally losing her tail and delivering the car to her employers. Financial delivery becomes physical delivery, dummy shopping is collapsed into highway navigation, and Emily’s job takes on a new sheen: to colonise Los Angeles’ roads as her own.
No surprise, then, that she continues to use her car as her main place of business, building a credit card racket of her own, and dealing out of her trunk in select parking lots. Since her apartment looks somewhat like an auto court, she’s tricked into briefly dealing from her residence, but she soon realises that it’s dangerous to allow buyers to visit her home address. The moment she becomes the deliveree, and invites the curb into her personal space, her clients steal all her cash. At stake in her labour, then, is the precarious to-and-fro that sustains delivery services – the mercurial trust and distrust that occurs at the handoff point on the curb. To regain control, Emily shifts the theatre of war from her apartment back to the street, where she takes charge by disarming the thieving couple as they sit in their car. First she tasers the man through the window, and then drags the woman onto the road, holding the taser to the her throat much as the man held a knife to her throat back in the apartment. The final stage in this resumption of automotive authority is Emily removing the woman’s license, getting her address, and threatening to drive straight to her house if she troubles her again.
All three of these economies converge in the last set piece of the film, and propel Emily out of the United States in the process. Learning that her marketing “job” was actually an internship galvanises her to join ranks with Youcef and fight back when his cousin, Khalil, played by Jonathan Avigdori, steals their dummy shopping earnings. Emily and Youcef now commence a heist that starts with Emily reprising her old food delivery persona, but as a front, so that she can taser Avigdori’s bodyguard, place him in the trunk of his car, and then park the car down the street. She then lures Khalil out of his bedroom by sending him a message from the bodyguard’s phone, saying there has been a car jacking nearby and he needs to come right away. This concatenation of automobile imagery ends with both Youcef and Khalil getting shot, and Emily realising that she is now at the very cusp of highway precarity, and that she’s next in line to be destroyed and absorbed into Los Angeles’ mystical-vortical flows.
Accordingly, Emily moves to South America, as if the convergence of internship, image and delivery economies had exhausted the promise of America as we know it. When we next see her, she’s untethered from cars, walking down a street, swimming in the surf, and sitting on a beach, where the great distances and epic promises of the American West Coast return, hauntologically, in the quietest and most beautiful spectacle of the film – Emily gazing into a purple-pink sunset, stunned, like the audience, by the depth of field, after a film that takes place almost entirely in close-up. Yet the delivery economy is transnational, big enough to survive America, and so the film ends with Emily instructing a new generation of South American dummy shoppers, bringing the lessons of American precarity to the Global South. The flows of Los Angeles have spread everywhere, rendering LA less distinct by comparison.