The stupid criminal genre of movies is a favorite of mine. They usually involve a heist or low-level dopes getting in way over their heads. They’re often a blast and the situations make for really fun set pieces. Similarly, I love a good holiday season crime movie; just a great dichotomy between season and circumstance. If you put them both together, add a strange amount of politeness in the face of danger, and a little bit of supernatural folklore and you’ll get the delightful How to Deter a Robber, which premiered Tuesday at Fantastic Fest 2020.
How to Deter a Robber is the feature debut for writer-director Maria Bissell who manages to meld the outlandish and the mundane to great effect. The characters feel just off enough to be funny but not so zany that they might lose credibility. You mostly know people like these; it’s not out of the realm of possibility for them to be in a situation like this. At a brisk 85 minutes, too, Bissell doesn’t mince words or belabor any points. It’s quick, it’s funny, it’s fresh, and then it says farewell.
Our lead character is Madison (Vanessa Marano) an 18-year-old staying with her family in a cabin in Northern Wisconsin for the holidays. She’s smart but doesn’t challenge herself, which is most evident in her choice of boyfriend, the sweet but naive Jimmy (Benjamin Papac) who’s also staying with them. After a fight with her mom, Madison and Jimmy go “check on” their neighbor’s empty house. After a seance revolving around the “hodag,” a mythical beast, they get high and pass out.
When they awaken, they discover the neighbors house has been robbed with them asleep in it. They call the cops and are instructed not to leave town. Since the family is leaving that day, the teens have to stay in the company of Madison’s gruff uncle Andy (Chris Mulkey). Meanwhile, a rash of robberies continue in the area. In order to deter the robbers from hitting their house, they set up Home Alone-style traps, grab BB guns, and try to make it clear people are there. But, you can probably guess what happens then.
Well, I say you can probably guess. What I like the most about How to Deter a Robber is just how often it turns what you expect to happen on its head. For instance, Andy is maybe the most level-headed and rational person ever in a movie like this. He recognizes the situation and the danger they’re in and constantly tries to diffuse it through helpfulness and politeness. Likewise, one of the robbers (Abbie Cobb) is super friendly and apologetic. It’s her cohort (Sonny Valicenti) who’s the real danger, and I also love that we never really learn too much about the robbers, but we can glean who they are through their actions and attitude. It’s really economical storytelling.
Another thing Bissell does incredibly well is set up a sense of geography in the house. There are traps and secret areas which we absolutely need to know like the back of our hand for the suspense (and some of the humor) to work at all. “Uh oh,” we think when anyone walks anywhere near a dangerous implement. That’s of utmost import when designing a thriller, even a sillier one, with a small cast and few locations.
The entire cast is worth a mention, but I’m going to single out Mulkey. He’s been such a stalwart “That Guy” actor for such a long time that it’s really great that he gets to take such central role here, and be an authority figure in a movie about teens without feeling like a hindrance. Like I said, he’s the smartest character in the movie and it’s an effortless performance. Great stuff.
How to Deter a Robber is just a load of fun and it even has a few big surprises I wouldn’t dream of spoiling. This will be a movie to put on during your holiday festivities. Think of it like an R-rated Home Alone or low-stakes Die Hard.
4 out of 5
Featured Image: XYZ Films