I’ve always been quite partial to a good Christmas movie. Die Hard (yes, it does count, and I’m perfectly happy to argue with naysayers in the comment section) is the ultimate festive picture in the eyes of yours truly, close followers being It’s a Wonderful Life, the first couple of Home Alone films, The Muppet Christmas Carol, Elf and Bad Santa. There are also the glaringly awful offerings such as Christo-fascist Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, Wham!-inspired maudlin drivel Last Christmas, Tim Allen’s horrendous Christmas with the Kranks (a film that essentially promotes violent cult-like behaviour) and, as it would be remiss not to cite the king of Xmas turds, the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. The first group of films I mentioned offer what I would call appropriate riffs on Christmas, thoughtful meditations on goodwill and self-improvement with some customary levity thrown into the mix (in the cases of Die Hard and Bad Santa, violence, non-stop foul language and aberrant sexuality smooth off the edges). The other movies were clearly created by people who just hate Christmas but won’t own it.
I’ve also always been quite partial to Mel Gibson, daffy politically-questionable hellraiser that he is. He’s a great actor and filmmaker even if I greatly diverge with him on things that he’s espoused in the past, and I’ll admit that I always have considerable anticipation when I hear he’s got something new out. So, what do you get when you combine Christmas-themed cinema with Mel Gibson? Well, you get the Nelms brothers’ Fatman, of course. It might not be as testicle-punchingly horrific as the aforementioned shite-tier Yuletide films, but it’s certainly got a few problems, the least of them being that it’s easily the most bizarre movie of 2020.
Gibson stars as Santa Claus (technically going by the alternative moniker Chris Cringle), and not only is his existence known by a select cadre of folks, the U.S. government actually has a share in his gift-creation-and-delivery business. Operating a large farmstead in a clandestine Alaskan locale, Chris employs his trusty elves to toil away for the majority of the year and is given loving support by wife Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste). Chris is in pessimistic and ornery spirits as of late, the government subsidies falling well below their usual mark due to a large naughty list (his subsidy payment is dependent on the volume of presents made and delivered, rendering the tradition of bad children receiving coal economically detrimental).
To keep Mr Cringle on side, government officials send in Captain Jacobs (Robert Bockstael), a military commander who proposes a two-month contract that will see the Cringle company earning a tidy penny in exchange for the production of control panels for new U.S. Army fighter aircraft. Creating strict new rules for the elves (including fingerprint ID and removal of shoe-bells for the facility’s metal detector), Jacobs cuts a highly formal yet amiable figure who expresses admiration for the workplace ethics and organisation of Cringle and Co. The small amount of wriggle-room in this mercenary-level venture only serves to worsen Chris’ burnout and misanthropy, the not-particularly-jolly Fatman (who isn’t even really that fat) feeling little more than contempt for a humankind that has forgotten the meaning of Christmas.
Amid all of this palaver, we are introduced to Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield), a spoiled pre-teen boy who lives in a large house with his wealthy and infirm grandmother. Already a narcissistic sociopath at such a tender age, Billy is a horrifically selfish, entitled, rude and completely amoral brat who cannot tolerate losing. Routinely forging cheques connected to his grandmother’s savings account, Billy procures the services of Skinny Man (Walton Goggins) an enforcer who will intimidate and assassinate as long as the price is right. An early scene sees Billy and Skinny Man threatening a young girl who won the school science fair, informing her that death awaits her and her family should she not ‘admit’ to their principal that she cheated and that it’s Billy who rightfully deserves the First Place ribbon. This nasty little prick imbues you with the notion that hate-filled Chris might not be so wrong about things after all.
Given Billy’s thoroughly bad behaviour, he wakes up on Christmas morning to find a beautifully wrapped lump of coal under the tree. Naturally incensed, Billy cries at the sky that Santa has made the biggest mistake he’ll ever make and promptly contacts Skinny Man to request a hit-job. As it turns out, Skinny Man has a long-standing grudge against our hero and accepts the assignment without hesitation. Now faced with a psychopathic hit-man in conjunction with his shame and resentment at the position he’s been forced into, Chris Cringle will need to fight like hell to regain his spirit and retain his life.
So, why is Fatman one of the most bizarre films I’ve ever seen? It’s not the central conceit in and of itself, the whole spiel sounds like a superbly riotous black comedy on paper. It’s because the tone of the piece couldn’t be more erratic if you pumped it full of vodka and told it to go full-pelt in a muscle car. Aside from some grumpy wit, Gibson plays the role straight, several scenes of Chris and Ruth bickering about finances and idealism lending a jarring air of real-world austerity to a film that’s about a bratty kid trying to f***ing kill Santa Claus. Granted, the efforts to realise the verisimilitude of Santa living and working in our reality are reasonably original, but the pissed-off, heavy drinking variant was also executed to far more tonally consistent and successful effect by Billy Bob Thornton, even if he was just a shopping mall Saint Nick. There is admittedly a poignant moment when Chris looks at some photos of Good Children alumni as adults but, for the most part, the dour atmosphere rivals the dramatic tone of The Beaver in absurdity.
The strongest entertainment factor in Fatman undoubtedly resides in the performance of Walton Goggins. Effortlessly menacing, cool and possessing excellent deadpan timing, Goggins has been allocated the best dialogue of the piece, delivering the promised black comedy quotient in spades. His contribution stands as the reason to stick it to the end, and I couldn’t help but think that this film would have been a lot funnier and tighter had the set-up been ‘Skinny Man vs. Chris Cringle’, forgoing all of the military-oriented waffle and detestable little oik. Don’t get me wrong, nobody in this is actually a weak link, Gibson & Hurstfield being convincing enough in their respective characterisations. The ultimate problem is the screenplay. When the film isn’t focusing on Skinny Man’s endeavour to murder Cringle, everything feels essentially pointless and disconnected. If you’re going to go heavy on detail, you need to find interweaving and resonance, and it’s sadly lacking here. The film could be fairly summarized as ‘Nasty contract killer goes after Santa Claus while a bunch of utterly incidental stuff occurs’.
Ultimately, I’d say it’s worth a watch for the masterful presence of Goggins and the curiosity factor inherent in the perplexing handling of the subject matter. It’s nowhere near as bad as the other terrible Christmas films mentioned at the start of the review, but it nevertheless seems to be so fixated on the quirkiness of its central idea that it struggles to find any kind of balance in the exploration. It’s just friggin’ strange, man.