Boredom and stress are a dangerous combination during the holidays. Dealing with an overbearing family, a lingering assignment for college applications, and trying to entertain an aloof partner can make anyone search for an escape. Writer/director Maria Bissell alleviates holiday doldrums and the stress of growing up by crafting a uniquely comical home invasion movie with her feature debut, How to Deter a Robber.
Madison Williams (Vanessa Marano) has led a pretty sheltered and lucky life. While slaving over her college admissions essay, she writes about the most difficult thing she has been through was the death of her pet bird. Her playful boyfriend Jimmy (Benjamin Papac) joins Madison and her family for a holiday dinner, which doesn’t go the way she envisioned. Sitting around the table with her loved ones, the conversation turns tense as they poke fun at Madison’s lack of vision for her future and embarrassing childhood stories. Later, as she vents to Jimmy in the garage, Madison notices a light turn on at the neighbor’s house – an odd occurrence since they are out of town for the winter. Angry and bored out of her mind, Madison decides to drag Jimmy over there with her to investigate.
Stoned and paranoid about the possibility of paranormal involvement, Jimmy enters the house with a childlike caution while Madison takes control and does what anyone would do after realizing the house is in fine shape: conduct a seance. Using a Ouija board, the couple uses a ceramic hodag (a folkloric animal native to Wisconsin) as their guide to which they later believe they actually summoned before passing out drunk. They later awake to find the house completely trashed. Alerting the authorities of the theft and sitting through a facetious formality of questioning, Madison and Jimmy are informed that there have been a string of robberies in the area. As a result, they relocate to stay with Madison’s Uncle Andy (Chris Mulkey) and set out to not only defend his house but solve the crimes once and for all.
Bissell successfully blends genres by adding comedic elements to the formulaic home invasion sub-genre. She takes a stressful scenario over the holidays and crafts it into a caper with layers of comedic catharsis when in reality, the situation would be terrifying. Madison is primarily the brains of the operation as she instructs Jimmy to booby trap various parts of the house to ward off intruders. Marano is a delight in her depiction of Madison and her character arc is the heart of the film. Madison’s frustration with those around her and her frazzled demeanor thankfully grow more charming than annoying as the film progresses. There are also moments of sweetness between her and her family after she encounters the robbers. The two masked villains (played perfectly by Sonny Valicenti and Abbie Cobb) who are responsible for the break-ins could be taken out of a Coen Brothers film, and their disposition is very reminiscent of characters from The Big Lebowski. However, the two are also character foils similar to Marv and Harry, the two self-proclaimed “wet bandits” from Chris Columbus’ Home Alone. After all, it is not everyday that a masked assailant asks if you’d like a drink of water (complete with a straw), chats relationship advice, and gets overly excited to try out a new knot formation while typing up their captives.
There is a lot going on in How To Deter A Robber, as there are several storylines that branch off of an already convoluted plot. The lack of worldly experience by Madison, a coming of age story, a home invasion story, the folklore of a hodag, a family drama, and the exploration of whether a romantic relationship will be sustainable are all focal points. A full-fledged story could come from just one of these subplots but the amalgamation of each makes for a somewhat tortuous plot in and of itself. However, Bissell clearly has a knack for comedy and inventive blocking in order to deceptively raise tension, which throws viewers off as to when danger is actually present. The pacing of the film is also smooth and propelled by enjoyably witty dialogue.
How to Deter A Robber possesses a lot of heart within an otherwise horrifying situation. It is a cinematic gift that keeps on giving, and Bissell knows how to deliver smiles disguised as scares. The holidays can be terrible no matter how many joints you smoke, hodags you conjure, or thieves you encounter, but How to Deter A Robber reminds us that the worst situations can always teach us something positive.
/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10