My fiancée’s 12-year-old goes through life in a more or less constant battle with the mile-long list of people and things that annoy her. While it makes raising her occasionally difficult, it’s not something I can reasonably hold against her, for the simple fact that a lot of the time, everybody else really is wrong and sucks and should go away. Learning how to find peace with that (while authority figures are looking) is part of growing up. But really, who wants to do that?
Home Alone is a dark movie in a lot of ways—it’s about home invasion and family estrangement, in part. But it’s also about the joy of just not having to deal with your fucking family during the holidays. And because it’s written by John Hughes, it is about not having to deal with your family during the holidays specifically as a kid, when most “bah, humbug!” entertainments are aimed at stressed out adults. It’s a point of view the film commits to fully, and sometimes quite literally: There are shots in this movie that explicitly put the viewer in the young protagonist’s shoes, calculated to make them feel small and helpless. It’s hard to say how much of this movie is cathartic slapstick and how much is dissonant dread.
Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) is an eight-year-old in a house in which every hall has been decked and every distant relation has gathered together in numbers large enough to rack up an insane pizza bill. The family is preparing to take a lavish vacation to France over the holidays, and Kevin is lost amid the hustle and bustle. Nobody has time for him, and everybody from his sneering siblings to his too-busy parents are treating him like he’s the problem for asking for some help. He shouldn’t feel singled out, though, since they’re also ignoring the uniformed police officer and the poor delivery boy, who really takes it on the chin in this movie. The McCallisters are not nice people, and Kevin gets sent to bed in the attic as punishment for his understandable outburst.
A late-night power outage kills everybody’s alarm clock and turns the morning of their departure into a mad rush in which Kevin is left behind, in a house in which the phone lines have been severed by the outage and the average eight-year-old does not yet have a cell phone. His mother (Catherine O’Hara, to the great surprise of the internet recently) is halfway across the Atlantic before she even realizes he’s not there. Kevin, couldn’t be happier, and it’s hard to fault him.
The movie follows Kevin as he engages in the kind of innocent largesse that is absolutely what an eight-year-old would get up to without his pesky parents and siblings around to keep him under their thumb: staying up to watch Johnny Carson, shooting at everything in sight with a BB gun, and watching age-inappropriate movies. The black-and-white gangster flick he watches, incredibly, was entirely shot for the movie and manages to strike the absolutely perfect tone of a mean, violent movie for grownups while not actually being gory or using foul language that would lose this movie its PG rating. (The fictional movie is called Angels with Filthy Souls and, in all honesty, it’s about half the reason I love this movie.)
The not-actually-foul-mouthed mob movie is just one more bit of setup in the movie that leads to a violent payoff in the end, as two burglars (Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern) target Kevin’s house and he defends his home with all of the various toys and tools that have been carefully placed on the mantle in the first act.
It is so violent.
Kevin manages to get the better of them (with some help), and just in time for his harried mother to make it home on Christmas morning. He’s learned two important lessons: He really does miss his family, and you should violently avail yourself of the Castle Doctrine if somebody threatens to steal your stuff.
Home Alone got mixed reviews but was an absolute runaway success on what was, even for the time, a modest budget. It catapulted Macaulay Culkin from a precocious child star who had already shown up in notable films alongside the likes of John Candy and Tim Robbins to a national obsession, with other (usually much worse) films trying to capture that same success. None of them really panned out, and Culkin’s star faded in a few years. It’s unfortunate, because Culkin is a talented and intelligent actor, and it has always seemed to me like he was not well used in kid-friendly fare—you always get the impression that he’s smarter than he’s letting on, and that both he and the character know this and revel in it. And yet nobody ever really seems to have intentionally used him to that effect with any success. When he tried to go fully evil in 1993’s The Good Son, the film did okay financially but garnered some pretty sour reviews.
Home Alone’s detractors really seem to hate it, though. (A throwaway gag in Kevin Smith’s Dogma claims that “somebody sold their soul to Satan to get the grosses up on that piece of shit.”) It may have been disappointment on the part of so many reviewers who by 1990 thought of writer John Hughes as the voice of youth in film after a decade that saw him pen Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and give the world the Brat Pack. In that light, Home Alone looked like a cash-in with a much less ambitious story.
Here’s the thing: The movie really is about a young child’s fear, and any complaints about things like the cartoon violence or wildly varying tone are really complaining about the movie’s refusal to abandon kid-friendliness and embrace a deeper examination of that fear. Many of the shots in the film are from Kevin’s point of view, or are otherwise shot from a comparatively low angle—pay attention when he’s at those cash registers around the middle stretch of the film, talking to people who are taller than he is and capable of busting him. Other shots feature characters glowering right at the fourth wall, putting us in Kevin’s shoes as his family or the Wet Bandits threaten him. The movie needed more scenes like those, and the seemingly haunted radiator in the basement, and it had to stay an all-ages holiday film.
I looked at 1988’s obvious best Christmas movie, which is about coping with assholes during the holidays. 1989’s most notable Christmas flick was about how the impossible expectations of the holiday season have turned Christmas into what is basically an enforced Baby Boomer ritual.
Home Alone’s is really about how powerless some kids can feel, and like those other two, it offers some catharsis for us: John McClane shoots those assholes, Rusty survives his insane family Christmas, and Kevin takes matters into his own hands for once and gets to punch the bullies and make himself the focus of his family’s attention for just one day. It’s why I think it’s still fondly remembered by so many, critics be damned.
That, and Joe Pesci getting shot in the dick with a BB gun.
Kenneth Lowe is gonna give you to the count of 10 to get your ugly, yellow, no-good keister off my property before I pump ya full o’ lead! You can follow him on Twitter and read more at his blog.