Old Man Marley Is the Worst Character in 'Home Alone'
The classic holiday film is full of terrible characters, but one rises above the rest.
Screenshot courtesy of Home Alone
Home Alone is a bad movie. If you're a frequent visitor to this site, seeing this opinion stated here won't surprise you—we've said it before—but considering its deathless presence in the holiday film canon, it bears repeating. A film that arguably represents the exact moment that the late, legendary storyteller and lifelong Chicagoan John Hughes's talents started to fade, Home Alone is a mean-spirited and outlandish (even for movies) tale of a family who hates their child just enough to forget to take him on vacation, and a child that spends time in solitude and increasingly panics without bothering to directly contact the authorities until the end of the film. It is a terrible movie for terrible people.
In my nearly 30 years of existence, however, I have not been able to stop watching Home Alone or the sequel Home Alone 2: Lost in New York. This is partially because, similar to holiday movie counterparts like Love Actually, Jingle All the Way, and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, watching Home Alone once every year has become a satisfying constant amidst the sturm und drang that the holiday season can sometimes be. Family members may act reckless, travel plans may be a pain in the ass to schedule—but Home Alone is always there, and comparatively it asks nothing of you.
I'm also continually drawn to Home Alone because, at its rotten core, the film functions as a study of some truly awful characters—the type of anti-heroes who make Breaking Bad look like, well, Heroes. Our protagonist, Kevin McCallister, is a child whose base instincts apparently include shoplifting, terrifying pizza delivery boys into thinking they're being held at gunpoint, and the type of sadistic violence that even the Saw filmmakers would likely blanche at.
His mother and father are truly awful human beings—let's set aside the whole child-abandonment issue and focus on the fact that they made their children sit in coach while they enjoyed the luxury of first-class airfare—and there's also the risible cheapness of Uncle Frank, the pointless cruelty exhibited by Buzz McCallister, and the cashier at the supermarket store who doesn't even bother to question why a child is buying a ton of groceries by himself. None are more arguably horrible, though, than Old Man Marley, the eerie man with the shovel lurking outside the McCallister's house in the beginning of the film.
Sadly, dear readers, you've been fooled by Hughes and director Chris Columbus's masterful emotional manipulation—for Old Man Marley, in reality, is a total piece of shit.
I know what you're saying: Old Man Marley is a saint! The only reason he exists in the film is to teach Kevin to have a broader sense of compassion toward others, and not to judge a book by its cover! OLD MAN MARLEY IS THE SPIRIT OF CHRISTMAS—OF GIVING, KINDNESS, AND LIGHT—PERSONIFIED. Sadly, dear readers, you've been fooled by Hughes and director Chris Columbus's masterful emotional manipulation—for Old Man Marley, in reality, is a total piece of shit.
Let's consider the evidence by tracing Old Man Marley's character development throughout the film. In Home Alone's opening minutes, we first see him shoveling snow and looking slightly menacing as Buzz, Kevin, and Jeff McAllister talk trash and spread lies about how scary he is. Kind of mean! As the film's hijinks kick in, Marley takes a narrative backseat until resurfacing around the film's midsection when he runs into Kevin in the drugstore, triggering the toothbrush shoplifting chase scene that so many know and love.
Now, the way this scene plays out is truly bizarre: when Marley and Kevin lock eyes, the latter's face carries a distinct look of terror—the kind of terror that a small child feels when seeing a stranger they find threatening. This look is unmistakable, and you'd think that Marley—a grown adult, with several generations of children under his family tree—would be able to recognize it and at least address, maybe even defuse, the situation. Instead, he essentially stares Kevin down wordlessly, in a manner that would scare me, a fellow grown adult who should also know better than to intimidate a child that is clearly out of his element.
Old Man Marley's penultimate scene in Home Alone is meant to essentially defang the character itself—to show that he's not all bad, and that both he and Kevin have lessons to teach other. So he takes a seat next to Kevin in church, tells him that all the rumors about him being a spooky-ass old man aren't true, and starts going off about how he's here to secretly watch his granddaughter sing in the church choir because he said some ill shit to his son and they haven't talked to each other in years. In the midst of all this solipsism, not once does Old Man Marley ask himself, "Why is this child alone in church, on Christmas Eve? How come this child, who is my next door neighbor and definitely has a family, is constantly alone every time I've seen him in the past few days?"
Obviously, no one at this point would accuse Old Man Marley of proper "adulting"—but it's his behavior during Home Alone's explosive Rube Goldberg-cum-Itchy and Scratchy burglar-trap centerpiece that cements him as a truly, bafflingly amoral human being. If your memory's rusty, I'll set this one up for you: after Kevin enacts his master plan against "The Wet Bandits," he places an anonymous phone call to 911 before luring the robbers to the house next door. (I could dwell on the logical fallacies of this plot point, but time is money.) The WB's find Kevin at the house and, for a brief moment, have him right where they want him—that is, before Old Man Marley shows up and bonks both of them on the head with that fucking shovel before whisking Kevin away from the scene.
So he's a hero, right? Here's the thing, though: in the following scene, Kevin McAllister is sitting comfortably in his own home watching the robbers get carted away by the cops. He looks comfortable, and he even waves tauntingly at them behind a curtain. There's no indication that he's spoken with the cops—who, arguably, could also help him out with the whole being-home-alone-without-his-parents deal—or that the cops are even aware of his role in this bizarre plan he's realized. We're led to believe, by extension, that Old Man Marley has also aided and abetted Kevin in hiding his involvement in the robbers' downfall, and that he likely didn't bother to ask Kevin why he was in his flooded neighbors' apartment alone with two strange men—or, more importantly, where his parents are in all of this.
And that arguable apathy is what makes Old Man Marley's actions throughout Home Alone so highly detestable. Kevin's parents truly screwed the film's ultimate pooch, yes, but they at least show a measure of emotion toward their situation as well as a willingness to find a solution. Old Man Marley, on the other hand, is maybe the only adult who has a fraction of a chance in helping Kevin reunite with his family or at least find the adult supervision he so clearly needs—several fractions of a chance, really, all of which he doesn't even attempt to take. At the end of Home Alone, Kevin looks out his window once more to see Old Man Marley reuniting with his own family, which makes for some nice narrative symmetry that is nonetheless an undeserved resolution: the film's ultimate lesson is that Kevin needs his family, but when the credits roll, it's hard to believe that Old Man Marley even deserves his.
Follow Larry Fitzmaurice on Twitter.