“How to Deter a Robber” brings a darker twist to a classic Christmas holiday nightmare.
Writer-director Maria Bissell’s first-ever feature film, which premiered at Fantastic Fest on Tuesday, is essentially a female-led “Home Alone,” but with more snow and much higher stakes.
While on Christmas vacation in wintery-white Wisconsin, Madison Williams (Vanessa Marano) decides to check out her neighbor’s house when she sees the lights turn on. The only problem: the neighbors are out of town.
The two robbers in the neighbor’s house eventually focus their efforts on Willams’ home, where she is forced to fend them off with the help of her uncle (Chris Mulkey) and boyfriend, Jimmy (Benjamin Papac). It doesn’t help that Jimmy spends most of the film drunk, and the holiday robbers are skilled with guns.
Bissell’s film is also a nod to Wisconsin lore — the “Hodag,” a green monster, is referenced multiple times. This detail, along with iconic “Home Alone”-style booby traps, add some much-needed lightheartedness to the suspenseful plot.
Bissell ties it all up with a bow by adding some holiday decor and relatable family drama into the plot. There are stockings hanging from the fireplace and a mother-daughter fight over dinner. In the background, Christmas music blends into the soundtrack. It’s these elements of sugar and spice that make the darkest moments merry and bright.
The film’s authentic dialogue is sure to unearth some not-so-fun holiday memories as well as create characters that go beyond the usual holiday movie caricatures.
Vanessa Marano accurately portrays a bratty daughter finding her sense of self, while Gabrielle Carteris, who plays Madison’s mother, brilliantly depicts the critical yet caring parental figure. Chris Mulkey pulls from his Minnesotan roots and “Twin Peaks” fame to play a weathered uncle with a big heart under his thick skin. Of all the characters, Benjamin Papac brings the most depth to his role as Jimmy, proving there’s more to him than his silly antics.
These dynamic characters sit around twiddling their thumbs and looking out the window, just as true holiday robbery victims do. Even the comedic scenes are drawn out. Bissell is merciless when it comes to elongated awkward moments that bring odd satisfaction and weird silence. However, she makes the wait worth it by crafting a captivating film that deserves to be on everyone’s annual holiday watchlist.
Beyond the laughable narrative, Bissell beautifully manipulates lighting and color throughout the film to create a sense of place without relying on Christmas lights. Rather, she emphasizes scenic blankets of snow and clouds of condensating breaths. The winter wonderland outdoors is contrasted by the rich warm hues and the shadows inside the cabin.
Bissell has a bright future ahead as a writer and director. With “How to Deter a Robber” as her first feature, there is no doubt that she will go on to create more movies worthy of becoming classics.
Rating: 4.5 Hodags out of 5