By Theresa Rodewald.
Problematic implications aside, How to Deter a Robber is a confidently directed film that has the potential to become an unconventional Christmas favourite, thanks to its off beat humour, nuanced female lead and sharp-eyed depiction of dysfunctional family dynamics.”
It’s Christmas in snowy, rural Northern Wisconsin. Madison Williams (Vanessa Marano) and her boyfriend Jimmy (Benjamin Papac) escape tension-wrought family festivities only to end up accidental hostages to two amateur burglars. Although the home invasion starts out polite enough, things soon take a turn for the darker. Diversions include an Ouija board, Hodags and Home Alone-style booby traps.
Sometimes, when a movie references other movies it is just a reminder of how much better the original was. How to Deter a Robber quotes Home Alone (Chris Columbus, USA 1990) and Fargo (Joel and Ethan Cohen, USA 1996) without evoking this wistful nostalgia because it has its own voice and its own story to tell. Maria Bissell’s first feature is a relatable, darkly funny and strangely festive film that promises great things from a young writer/director but is also not without its flaws.
There are not many movies that toe the line between Christmassy coming of age film and home invasion thriller and just as few that feature a complex female lead. Vanessa Marano (Gilmore Girls, Dexter) plays Madison somewhere between irksome teenager and exasperated young adult who wants to break away from her overbearing mother. Madison is both irritating and likeable – a privilege usually reserved for male characters as films that allow young women to be imperfect, unlikable at times and vulnerable at others, are still far and few between.
Coming of age comedies often construct female characters as either the butt of every joke, mute eye-candy or infuriatingly dumb. Maria Bissell centres her story around Madison and by doing so turns this dynamic on its head. It is refreshing to sigh in exasperation with Madison when her slacker boyfriend Jimmy finds yet another way of proving that he is utterly useless.
How to Deter a Robber is well-written and confidently directed, with handsome cinematography from Bissel’s husband Stephen Tringali and a cracking soundtrack that weaves vintage Christmas songs seamlessly into Robert Allaire’s original score. The jokes are well-delivered and well-timed, not least because of Patrick Lawrence’s snappy editing and the story feels firmly anchored in the snowy forests of Northern Wisconsin. With a running time of 85 minutes it never outstays its welcome and reminds us that brevity is an art as well as a pleasure.
Despite its technical achievements and complex female lead, however, How to Deter a Robber is not perfect and its biggest flaw ends up warping the film’s overarching message into something rather problematic.
Madison has dubbed the string of break-ins “serial robberies”, a term that evokes the notion of the perfect crime, a mystery that needs to be solved. Her uncle Andy (Chris Mulkey) believes that the robberies are crimes of opportunity. As soon as burglars Christine (Abbie Cobb) and Patrick (Sonny Valicenti) enter the scene it is obvious that they do not have a master plan at all. What the film hints at but fails to explore properly is that these are neither serial robberies nor crimes of opportunity but crimes of necessity. Somewhere in the background of the unfolding home invasion narrative is the vague idea that Christine and Patrick are committing these crimes to escape a desperate situation. Because their motives are left unexplored, however, we only get the sense that they want to cheat, skip a few steps on the way to the American Dream – which obscures the fact that they probably never had a chance in the first place. Patrick utters one of the most honest lines of the film when he tells Madison: “You’ve never worked a day. You’ve had everything handed to you.”
The half-hearted way in which How to Deter a Robber depicts Christine’s and Patrick’s motives, however, reinforces a one-dimensional view of crime. Madison and her family are clearly and comfortably middle class – they have a winter cabin in Wisconsin and can apparently afford college tuition fees. The film opens with Madison writing her college application essay, desperately trying to tell the story of how she has managed to overcome an obstacle when she has never done anything like that because she has not been forced to take responsibility yet. While Madison’s indecisiveness is as valid as Christine’s and Patrick’s struggle, her journey to responsibility and adulthood unfolds at their expense – a narrative contrivance that feels simplistic and wrong. Towards the end, the film abandons its darkly comedic tone and attempts a wholesome happy ending that is truly jarring.
Madison, Jimmy and Andy might be on the right side of the law but the film tells the wrong side of the story, relegating Christine and Patrick to pawns in a game of middle-class teenage self-discovery. Not only does this obscure the socio-political roots of crime, it also reinforces the deeply flawed mantra that people “choose” their fate when the system they are part of does not leave room for choices to begin with.
Problematic implications aside, How to Deter a Robber is a confidently directed film that has the potential to become an unconventional Christmas favourite, thanks to its off beat humour, nuanced female lead and sharp-eyed depiction of dysfunctional family dynamics. Although mid-July might be a bit early for a Christmas movie, the sight of snow-covered forests and frozen lakes is definitely a welcome distraction from the sweltering summer heat. Christmas movie or not, How to Deter a Robber also makes an interesting double-bill with the 25th anniversary re-release of Fargo that can currently be seen in selected cinemas.
Theresa Rodewald, MA, studied Cinema Studies at Stockholm University in Sweden and Cultural Studies in Germany and Ireland. She writes for a number of independent film magazines, including L-MAG and Berliner Filmfestivals, and has written about critiques of capitalism in current gangster films, images of masculinity in Scarface (1932) and the representation of queer women in mainstream cinema. She is a contributor to the forthcoming David Fincher’s Zodiac: Cinema of Investigation and (Mis)Interpretation (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press).