Christmas movies are typically designed to instil warm and fuzzy feelings in the audience, and the plots are usually straightforward stories that deliver the requisite happy endings and see the characters rediscover the importance of their friends, families and loved ones, as well as their Christmas spirit.
However, there’s definitely a market for alternative festive films, one that’s been filled over the decades by action classic Die Hard, the anarchic Gremlins, Gothic superhero sequel Batman Returns, the foul-mouthed Bad Santa, the tongue in cheek horror of Krampus and virtually Shane Black’s entire filmography from Lethal Weapon and The Long Kiss Goodnight to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Iron Man 3.
Writer/directors Eshom and Ian Nelms are the latest to throw their hats into the ring with Fatman, and the movie is destined to become a cult classic for fans that like their Christmas cheer to be a whole lot scuzzier than usual. The plot follows a spoiled and entitled 12 year-old kid who receives a lump of coal in his stocking from Santa Claus, and he does what anyone else would do in the same situation by hiring a hitman to track down and murder Saint Nick.
The trailer may have sold Fatman as a relatively straightforward action thriller, but there’s much more to the narrative than that, and the Nelms brothers do an admirable job in straddling so many tonal shifts to craft a distinctly unique entry into the Christmas canon. The bare bones of the concept could have been played entirely for laughs or as a winking actioner that refuses to take itself seriously, but there are influences and inspirations from multiple different genres woven into the story.
The opening scenes highlight the fact that Fatman is definitely a Christmas movie, and it features a lot of the iconography that you’d expect from the subgenre. However, the filmmakers subvert almost every trope to ground the plot in a real and tangible world, albeit one where not only does Santa Claus exist with all the trappings you’d expect from his workshop to the elves that inhabit it, but he’s also subcontracted by the U.S. military and has grown increasingly disillusioned with the overcommercialization of the holiday season.
The casting of the title character is key to making Fatman work, and Mel Gibson makes for a suitably grizzled and world-weary Chris Cringle. Playing everything almost entirely straight is a risky move for the Nelms brothers to make given that the premise is inherently ludicrous, but Gibson sells everything with such charismatic conviction that you fully believe this is a once-mythical figure now reduced to a shell of his former self that’s struggling to make ends meet.
There are hints at a wider mythology that are never fully explained or explored as well, leaving viewers to join the dots for themselves. Fatman both embraces and subverts the archetypes of the festive back catalogue to great effect. The elves are given a backstory that explains their existence, we catch a brief glimpse of Santa’s sleigh when Chris is forced to repair it after being shot making his annual rounds and Mrs. Claus bakes delicious cookies for everyone, but the plot is always moving forward so there’s no need to dwell on an explanation for the minutiae.
Juggling so many disparate elements is a tough task, and Fatman often drastically and jarringly changes its approach on a dime. In one scene we see Walton Goggins’ Skinny Man threatening a child with torture if she doesn’t concede first place in the school science fair, only to immediately switch focus to the surprisingly tender relationship between Chris and his wife Ruth, played by Marianne-Jean Baptiste in a warm performance that establishes Mrs. Claus as the beating emotional heart of the entire movie.
There are also some jet black comic beats that generate a few big laughs, a rumination on the military-industrial complex that paints Santa as a small business owner forced to partner up with the government to keep his workshop afloat and mediations on how modern society is slowly but surely losing its grip on what Christmas is really all about, before everything builds to a thunderous third act showdown between Chris Cringle and Skinny Man that feels as though it was pulled straight from a classic Western and planted on the snow.
The setup might have you believing that the Nelms brothers designed Fatman with the sole intention of making a deliberate anti-Christmas movie, but despite relying on so much subversion to build their offbeat mythology, there’s also a pervasive sense of earnestness to be found in the way the siblings have tackled the material.
Trying to describe Fatman and do it justice is a difficult task given that it incorporates elements of the action, thriller, dark comedy, family drama, Western and even superhero genres into the space of 100 brief minutes, but the end product is a hugely satisfying and wholly original Christmas pic that will no doubt become required viewing on an annual basis for those who prefer their holiday favorites to be a little less traditional.
Directors Ehsom and Ian Nelms craft an instant Christmas cult classic with Fatman that subverts almost every trope of the genre.