Brace for this: “Fatman” is a Christmas-themed comic thriller starring Mel Gibson as a gritty, despondent, cash-strapped Chris Cringle who — at the height of the holiday season — has to negotiate a hostile takeover from the U.S. military while fending off a hellbent assassin (Walton Goggins) hired by some bratty rich kid who’s pissed off that he got coal in his stocking the previous year. It’s 100 minutes long, it combines the crude yuletide spirit of “Bad Santa” with the dour seriousness of a Zack Snyder movie, and it climaxes with a mass shooting at the North Pole. End of review.
Seriously, what else is there to say? Either you want to see a movie called “Fatman” that paints Santa Claus — played by the living embodiment of holiday cheer himself — as a moody Boomer who bemoans the good old days and sports a bushy gray bearded look that can only be described as “Blood Father Christmas” … or you don’t. The most gracious and open-minded response this yuletide aberration is the acknowledgement that there has to be a self-selecting audience out there for it somewhere.
This Jewish critic may not love that more Christmas movies come out in a given week than the number of Hanukkah movies that have ever been made (we’ve got “8 Crazy Nights,” the end credits of “Call Me by Your Name,” and that’s about it), but you can’t argue with supply and demand. And at that rate, it’s no wonder people are starting to scrape the bottom of the sleigh for new ideas. Three years ago, Michael Shannon starred in a Bigfoot-themed “It’s a Wonderful Life” homage and nobody blinked an eye; it was only a matter of time before “Fatman” squeezed its way down the chimney.
Still, it’s easier to imagine that someone would actually want to see this thing if it was devoid of its inert pacing, half-assed sense of humor, and the delusional sincerity with which it attempts to address a vague array of social ills. But Christmas is apparently about looking out for other people, and so in that spirit — along with a pinch of professional obligation — it’s worth insisting that even “Hacksaw Ridge” superfans who think that “Elf” was a few execution-style killings away from a classic are going to lose interest in “Fatman” long before Santa has sex with Mrs. Claus in order to calm his nerves before the big Noel (she’s played by the great Marianne Jean-Baptiste, and that scene is actually sweet enough).
A longtime passion project for even longer time brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms — whose 2017 John Hawkes thriller “Small Town Crime” was far too strong to anticipate such a severe miscalculation — “Fatman” might sound like the name of a rejected “Mega Man” villain, but the title derives from what a spoiled 12-year-old named Billy Wenan calls Santa after finding himself on the naughty list one Christmas. Billy (an expertly noxious Chance Hurstfield), who lives with his grandmother, spends his free time making life miserable for his maids and threatening to torture the girl at school who finishes ahead of him at the science fair. And we’re talking literal, demonic, War on Terror-level torturing from a kid so entitled that he still expected to get presents from St. Nick.
But little Billy doesn’t like to get his hands dirty, so it helps that he has a contract killer on speed dial for some reason. That would be the Skinny Man (a very committed Goggins, trying so hard to will this into a better movie that you can see the veins bulging on his forehead in every frame). How does a pre-pubescent twerp hire a hitman who’s more than happy to do his bidding? The answer is probably “the Internet,” but that such a question goes unanswered reflects this movie’s frustrating relationship with reality.
Santa exists, but Chris Cringle is a real man with real problems — problems that are only going to get worse when Billy commissions Skinny Man to trudge up to “North Peak” and kill him. He’s been alive for centuries and loathes consumerism, and yet he’s legibly American in every respect; his workshop is a corporate entity that’s subsidized by the Pentagon’s military budget, but he can no longer afford to pay his worker elves because the nation’s kids have gotten too naughty and the government is threatening to slash his subsidy. “We’re a business,” Chris growls, “and altruism is not a deductible on their bottom line” (a typical line of dialogue in a film that peaks with Santa Claus phoning an unseen business magnate named “Elon” — hmm! — to complain about outsourcing).
It might have been fun if “Fatman” had made good on such anti-capitalist overtures, but whatever political messaging once inspired the Nelms’ to come up with this story has been sanded down into simple platitudes on its way to the screen. In a maddeningly repetitive movie that spends every other scene watching Goggins interrogate and then murder one of the hapless postal workers/potential witnesses who helps him follow the mail up to North Peak, there just isn’t any time to explain how Gen Z is so much worse than any of the kids who came before them, or what made them that way. Was it TikTok? Was it Trump? Was it being raised in a lopsided economy that doesn’t reward decency or hard work? “Fatman” is too busy refashioning Santa into a Logan-esque superhero to care about such things. All that matters is that Chris has lost faith in the magic of his own holiday, and he’s too boozed up on bourbon to leverage that he’s singlehandedly keeping the coal industry alive in this country. Hey Santa, maybe it’s time to give naughty kids little solar panels instead?
There’s something potentially fun to the idea of Santa becoming the biggest Scrooge of all, but “Fatman” never finds what that might be. Instead, the film charts the most tedious route it can find up to North Peak while letting a host of ultra-basic abandonment issues percolate in the background. There’s a dormant warmth to the scenes between Chris and his wife, but not a single minute of this sluggish movie sparks any serious joy from its take on “badass” Santa, or his duel of the fates with the sociopathic assassin heading his way.
Goggins leans all the way into every beat — slinking his way across the screen like a hunger-mad hyena whether he’s pissing in the snow outside an Arby’s or threatening to electrocute a pre-teen girl with a car battery — but there’s just nothing there for him to play, and the Skinny Man ultimately feels even thinner than his name would suggest. You know things have gone off the rails when a comic genius yelling “Santa Claus, motherfucker!” doesn’t inspire even a hint of holiday cheer. And Mel Gibson as a fallen saint who rediscovers the happiness he brings to the world? The hardest of passes.
“Fatman” wants to show us that we’re on the wrong track, and that going back to the way things used to be is our best chance to rediscover the true meaning of Christmas. But this bland stab at seasonal entertainment is too enamored by its own edgy revisionism to deliver on that promise, and after the 2020 that we’ve been having, everyone — young, old, Christian, and not — deserves something better in their stocking this year.
Saban Films will release “Fatman” in theaters on Friday, November 13. It will be available on VOD on Tuesday, November 24.
As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.