It’s almost a certainty that you’ve never seen a Christmas movie like Fatman. You know how they wanted to make all superhero films in that “gritty, realistic” style that Christopher Nolan turned into billions of dollars with the Dark Knight trilogy? In Fatman, writers/directors Ian and Eshom Nelms (Small Town Crime) take the greatest superhero of them all, Santa Claus, and transform him into a struggling, borderline alcoholic curmudgeon who may lose his business, and has a killer after him to boot.
That’s right: As played by a more grizzled than usual Mel Gibson, whose voice emanates from somewhere deep within the considerable beard he’s sporting, Chris Kringle is bitter and depressed over the state of the world. More and more kids are making bad choices, leaving him no option but to deliver them hunks of coal instead of toys. But that also creates a downturn in business for his toy making shop–a snowy, decrepit family farm where a staff of hard-working elves lends a little mythological sparkle to this otherwise drab location.
“Christmas generates $3 trillion in the U.S. alone and we can’t even pay the power bill,” Chris growls to his saintly wife Ruth (the great Marianne Jean-Baptiste), who promises him that things will get better. But Chris remains unconvinced: “All I have is loathing for a world that’s forgotten,” he moans, before the U.S. government–which already subsidizes his operation as an economy booster–shows up with a new, post-holiday season offer of a lucrative new contract to make control panels for fighter jets (the military brass is impressed with how efficiently the toy making operation runs, apparently).
There’s something undeniably intriguing about this premise, even if the thought of Santa getting all hot for Mrs. Claus (as he does at one point) is not exactly out of Rankin/Bass’ Santa Claus is Coming to Town, the greatest of all St. Nick origin stories. But the Nelms never do anything particularly exciting with it either. The other main plot thread of Fatman follows Jonathan Miller (Walton Goggins), a hitman hired to head to the town of “North Peak” and gun down Santa.
Goggins is super-intense as usual. He tracks and purchases toys that come directly from Santa’s workshop like a demented collector, since all he got for Christmas from his dad as a child were cigarette burns on his arms. But his client is a spoiled rich kid named Billy (Chance Hurstfield) who previously hired Miller to threaten the girl who beat out Billy for first prize at the science fair. Billy gets a lump of coal from Santa for his efforts, leading him to put out the contract on Mr. Kringle (Billy’s dad is living out his midlife crisis in the Bahamas, making this yet another meditation on absent fathers as well).
The Nelms guys want to say something about a world where a kid puts a hit on Santa and the old man himself is taking money from the military to make ends meet, but it’s never quite clear what their message is or what tone they’re aiming for. There are a number of clever ideas in Fatman: Chris, for instance, knows everything about everybody already, including their names and whatever they’ve been up to lately. But at the same time, the movie jarringly features a third act bloodbath in which Chris himself wields a gun like, I don’t know, a deranged cop maybe? The mix of satire and suspense is too much for the Nelms.
Speaking of the man who plays both Chris and has inhabited that deranged cop a few times in the past, Gibson continues the post-destruction phase of his career with another detailed yet somewhat sour performance. There’s an occasional flash of joviality, but Gibson mostly wanders somewhere between anger and melancholy.
In films like this and Dragged Across Concrete, it feels more and more like the real Mel is peeking out from behind his characters, so we have to wonder if the Nelms brothers thought it was funny to have the man who once called a female police officer “sugar tits” remark that his business is going “tits up.”
Of all the ideas in Fatman that end up kind of going nowhere, that is the one for which the filmmakers probably most deserve a lump of coal.
Fatman is out now in limited theatrical release and will arrive on digital Tuesday, Nov. 24.