Fantastic Fest 2020 Review: HOW TO DETER A ROBBER, Smart Holiday Crime Comedy
Vanessa Marano, Benjamin Papac and Chris Mulkey star in writer/director Maria Bissell's smart and consistently funny crime comedy.
To slightly amend Nobel Prize-winning philosopher, novelist, and playwright Jean-Paul Sartre, hell isn’t just other people. Hell is sitting down to Christmas dinner minus the turkey you inadvertently trashed, then having to make small-talk with your blended family, followed by an all-too-familiar, quickly escalating discussion about what you’re going to do with your life, if anything.
That awkward, cringe-inducing conversation kickstarts filmmaker Maria Bissell’s feature-length debut, How to Deter a Robber, a wicked smart, consistently funny crime comedy that mixes and matches two of Bissell’s admittedly favorite films, Fargo and Home Alone. Though more than just a sum of its primary influences, How to Deter a Robber also serves as a showcase for Bissell’s dual talents as a screenwriter and a director.
Set naturally enough on Christmas Eve, How to Deter a Robber centers on Madison Williams (Vanessa Marano), a bright, if directionless, 18-year-old woman facing a crucible, not just of a family get-together at the family cabin in Wisconsin, but also what she’ll do next and where she’ll go afterward. Stuck on what to say in the obligatory personal essay ― the bane of college applicants everywhere and every when ― Madison thinks she’s succeeded when she writes about overcoming a great and terrible loss (it’s not).
Criticized for her lack of focus by her well-meaning, if over-emphatic, mother, Charlotte (Gabrielle Carteris), and, at best, tolerated by her stepsister, Heather (Leah Lewis), and her stepfather, Scott (Arnold Y. Kim), Madison attempts to escape her mildly dysfunctional with her slacker boyfriend, Jimmy (Benjamin Papac), and a nearby, abandoned cabin.
When Madison and Jimmy wake up the next morning after a light evening of trespassing, conducting a seance, and otherwise doing what upper-middle-class teens would do with an entire cabin to themselves, they find the cabin completely trashed. A call to the police leaves Madison and Jimmy as chief suspects, Madison’s family returning to their home in Chicago, and Madison and Jimmy in the temporary care of Madison’s soft-spoken uncle, Andy Reynolds (Chris Mulkey), the epitome of "Minnesota nice" (except he's a Wisconsite). While Madison and Jimmy want to play amateur detectives, the level-headed Andy prefers a “keep calm and everything will sort things out” right up until he finds his home burgled and little recourse except returning to the family cabin for the night.
So far, that’s all set-up for a perfectly calibrated plot turn that leads inexorably into the second act of Bissell’s tightly structured screenplay. It’s all but inevitable that Madison, Jimmy, and Andy won’t have a quiet, restful night, especially when Madison and Jimmy decide to burglar-proof the cabin (with, shockingly enough, ineffectual results).
While How to Deter a Robber seems to swing towards familiar Home Alone-inspired developments, it quickly turns into something else entirely, a Funny Games-style home invasion thriller pitting Madison, Jimmy, and Andy against equally amateurish robbers, Christine Schroeder (Abbie Cobb) and Patrick Lindner (Sonny Valicenti), who, in classic Coen Brothers/Fargo fashion, aren’t exactly among the brightest stars in the constellation of felons to invade a summer cabin in the middle of winter.
Shot in only 17 days in the middle of a typically freezing Wisconsin winter (where Bissell herself spent summers with her family), How to Deter a Robber has all the gloss and style of a much more expensive film. Bissell and her cinematographer (and husband), Stephen Tringali, give How to Deter A Robber a deeply textured, lived-in look, but they also don’t shy from more expansive visual compositions that help to both sell the site and setting of the film and function, however inadvertently, for Wisconsin’s natural beauty in the wintertime.
Just as importantly, Bissell has a firm grasp on structure, tone, and rhythm, knowing when to cut on a humorous line, when to hold a cut to emphasize a reaction or emotion, and when to quicken the editing pace to keep the momentum moving forward and audiences fully engaged.
If anything, How to Deter a Robber feels almost too short, too rushed in getting to the inevitably life-changing or life-ending denouement for Bissell’s cast of well-drawn characters, a likely product of the 17-day-shooting schedule and a modest budget. A few more complications, a few more twists and turns in the third act could have easily elevated How to Deter a Robber closer to the Coen Brothers and must-watch territory.
As it stands, though, How to Deter a Robber will and should be remembered as the work of a talented, first-time filmmaker, the first in what should be a long career behind the camera.
The film enjoyed its world premiere at Fantastic Fest on September 29, 2020. Visit the official site for more information.