In 1990, legendary filmmaker John Hughes was putting together a to-do list for a Christmas vacation(!) when he jokingly made a mental note to not forget his kids. Then he thought “wait, what if I did leave my kids?” He abandoned his packing list to scribble out eight pages of notes that would eventually become the script for Home Alone.
Hughes and director Christopher Columbus’s tribute to childlike wonder, the joys of Christmas and the value of family is lauded for getting many things right about the experience of being a kid. As Kevin McCallister, Macaulay Culkin is in turns thrilled, terrified and determined as he navigates his lonely empire. Who hasn’t wished that our big brother would vanish, or that we could have the whole pizza to ourselves?
But the movie is wrong on one key point, and once pointed out, you can’t unsee it. It is wrong about who we should be rooting against. Harry (Joe Pesci) and Marv (Daniel Stern) are many things — antisocial jerks, criminals and, yes, surprisingly incompetent as adults go. What they are not is Home Alone’s villains. Yes, much like Todd Phillips’ Joker or Broadway’s Wicked, the Wet Bandits are just one slight remix away from being the tragic antiheroes the saga of Kevin McCallister.
To understand the story of Home Alone, we must first immerse ourselves in the world of 1990. A season of relative economic prosperity, we find the McCallisters living like absolute kings in the Chicago suburbs. They are planning a family-spanning international trip to France, a holiday trip that, by the financial standards of most Americans, is about as feasible as a trip to Saturn. Despite their frankly disgusting wealth, the family is full of selfish, spiteful miscreants who spend all their time hurling vicious insults at each other. When they are not fielding verbal and emotional torment, they are leaving one of their own behind. Admittedly, everyone eventually feels very bad about this and goes great lengths to get back to Kevin, but it does not cover up the fact that a whole family boarded an international flight minus one member and nobody realized it.
That’s a big accident — if it was an accident.
The events of the movie suggest that this may have been at least partially, even subconsciously, deliberate. Given the choices between traveling to France with a child sociopath and leaving him in the relative safety of a fully stocked mansion where he can’t do any harm, what would you do?
Meanwhile, let’s talk about Harry and Marv. Clearly, no one will defend these two as lovable or even particularly likable. Marv is dimwitted and Harry is a jerk. But then, as the McCallister family is full of jerks and dimwits as well, it’s hard to see why we should hold this against the Wet Bandits within the context of the movie itself. It’s a pretty level playing field as far as general attitudes and competence go.
Of course, you’ll argue that Harry and Marv are criminals and, yes, we do see them engaging in criminal behavior. I won’t try to argue that point, but I will ask for a bit of understanding. It’s very clear that Harry and Marv come from a very different socioeconomic background than the McCallisters, who are living a life of luxury the likes of which Harry and Marv could not dream even if they’d managed to burglarize the whole block.
This doesn’t excuse a life of crime, but it does help us understand a little more about the reality of Harry and Marv’s world. Perhaps if the McCallisters were a bit more generous with their globs of wealth, the world would have fewer Harrys and Marvs.
But we haven’t really touched on the true villain of this story yet: Kevin himself. At 10-years-old, this child is a sadistic menace who inflicts more harm in the third act of this movie than Harry and Marv would if they’d robbed every single home in Illinois. A good deal of Kevin’s bone crunching stunts have nothing at all to do with protecting his family or saving Christmas — they are designed to cause pain and humiliation, a clear escalation of the cruel barbs he swap with his sibling, his parents and anyone else close to him. He may be within his rights to defend his home, but really ask yourself: What would Kevin have really lost by simply running and hiding? Harry and Marv’s drive a 1986 Dodge Ram Van, which is roughly 8 by 20 feet. How much were they really going to make away with? A couple couches? A few overpriced home goods which the McCallisters could easily replace? Given the brutality of Kevin’s attacks on Harry and Marv, they’re fortunate to be alive. How much does this kid really care abut his mom’s decor?
Contrast Kevin’s insidious violence with the attitude of Bishop Myriel in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. When burglarized by Jean Valjean, a figure every bit as sour and duplicitous as the Wet Bandits, Muriel responds with grace, knowing full well that cruel times make cruel men and mercy will triumph where vengeance fails. It may be expecting a bit much of Kevin to send Harry and Marv on their way with silver candlesticks, but couldn’t he at least show the barest glimmer of humanity?
No. Harry and Marv are nobody’s heroes, but Home Alone is bereft of heroes, save for one — Gus Polinski, the Polka King of the Midwest. The late, great John Candy is selfless, empathetic and compassionate in very moment of his brief screen time. Would that Harry and Marv had run into him instead of the twisted young psycho they actually met. They’d all be better for it.
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.