There’s a fine line between comedy and tragedy, which is why black comedy is a film genre that is notoriously tough to get right. Despite good performances and some nice moments, Fatman—in which Mel Gibson plays a gruff, grizzled, disillusioned Santa—doesn’t quite succeed tonally in finding that elusive sweet spot. The trailer was certainly promising, but the concept is better than the ultimate execution. That said, it’s still pretty entertaining, and a solid addition to the growing genre of what one might call “anti-holiday” films.
(Some spoilers below, but no major reveals.)
Written and directed by brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms (Small Town Crime), the film co-stars Walton Goggins (The Righteous Gemstones, Ant-Man and the Wasp) and Oscar-nominee Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets and Lies, Blindspot). Per the official premise:
To save his declining business, Chris Cringle (Gibson), also known as Santa Claus, is forced into a partnership with the U.S. military. Making matters worse, Chris gets locked into a deadly battle of wits against a highly skilled assassin (Goggins), hired by a precocious 12-year-old after receiving a lump of coal in his stocking. ‘Tis the season for Fatman to get even, in the action-comedy that keeps on giving.
Chris and his wife, Ruth (Jean-Baptiste) run a Christmas present manufacturing operation in North Peak, Alaska, with the help of their workers (elves), led by the elfin factory foreman, Seven (Eric Woolfe). Apparently the US government pays Chris an annual subsidy to run the factory, since Christmas generates some $3 trillion a year in holiday spending. But in recent years, so many children have made the naughty list—thereby meriting a lump of coal in lieu of a gift—that it’s significantly reduced the factory’s output, resulting in much smaller subsidies. Chris tries to find other clients, but “everybody is outsourcing,” and he keeps getting underbid. To save the factory, he accepts a one-time contract from the US military to manufacture control panels for a new jet fighter program.
Cut to Christmas morning, when young Billy (Chance Hurstfield, The Package, Good Boys) opens a gift from Santa, only to find a lump of coal inside. Billy is not amused. In fact, he is outraged to the point of hiring Goggins’ assassin, Jonathan Miller (aka Skinny Man), to kill Santa Claus, aka the titular Fatman. But first, Miller has to figure out where Santa’s been holed up all these years.
This is not a film with many laugh-out-loud moments, or even hearty chuckles; it’s more likely to elicit wry appreciative grins. Tonally, it’s pretty dark, although the violence is largely off-camera until the climactic confrontation. The ultra-dry humor lurks around the edges, in small ornamental details, like watching Captain Jacobs (Robert Bockstael) lecture Seven about the elves’ unhealthy diet. They subsist entirely on simple carbs and sugar six times a day, and he thinks they should at least get a bit of protein now and then. And when a smarmy government suit gets nipped by Donner, Chris rasps, “You’re lucky it wasn’t Blitzen. She’ll tear your package clean off.”
Goggins’ Miller pretty much steals this film, as we see him intently building up his weapons cache, brushing up on his mixed martial arts, and taking a few practice punches at a cartoonish Santa head target. He doesn’t even try to be “funny,” playing it straight with a deadpan delivery that lets the absurdity of the situation speak for itself—especially in his interactions with his young client.
For instance, once Miller locates Santa, Billy demands the big man’s head as a trophy, but Miller warns him that heads rot and mold. When Billy next demands his beard, the hit man refuses: “I’m not shaving off a dead man’s beard.” (Miller is clearly not fond of his client, since the caller ID for Billy is “Little S*&t.”) And despite being a cold-blooded assassin, Miller keeps a pet hamster, even stopping off in a pet store en route to kill Chris so he can mount a hamster wheel on the car dashboard for his rodent companion. He is not pleased when the pet store owner suggests he seems more like a snake person: “Snakes eat hamsters.”
There’s a theme here of absent, neglectful fathers—and in the case of Miller, outright abusive fathers. Billy’s father prefers to spend Christmas in the Bahamas with his hot young girlfriend rather than with his own son, and he sends Billy a giant stuffed teddy bear as a gift, suggesting he might not even remember his son’s age. One might be tempted to feel bad for Billy if we hadn’t just watched him hire Miller to kidnap the young girl who won the school science fair instead of him, and threaten to electrocute her with a 12-volt car battery if she didn’t confess to cheating, so he would win by default. Oh, and he stole blank checks from his wheelchair-bound grandmother and forged her signature to take out a hit on Santa. Billy totes deserved that lump of coal.
Fatman might be deemed the evil twin to the 1989 French cult film Dial Code: Santa Claus (itself a precursor to Home Alone), in which a Rambo-obsessed young boy named Thomas battles a murderous intruder on Christmas eve. Both films share a dark sensibility, with only touches of wry humor. Dial Code: Santa Claus is essentially a violent fairy tale about the loss of childhood innocence; Thomas is a sweet-natured boy form a wealthy family, with a loving mother and grandfather, who is genuinely traumatized by the violence that breaks out when “Santa” comes down the chimney. Billy is his polar opposite: spoiled, entitled, and most definitely a sociopath who really doesn’t seem to comprehend things like empathy for others’ suffering. The question Fatman ultimately poses is whether Billy deserves punishment or a chance for redemption.
Fatman is now available on VOD. Pair with Dial Code: Santa Claus (if you can find it), or perhaps Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Gremlins, or Bad Santa.