Mel Gibson as Chris Cringle/Santa Claus
Walton Goggins as Skinny Man
Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Ruth Cringle/Mrs. Claus
Chance Hurstfield as Billy Wenan
Written and Directed by Ian and Eshom Nelms
After years of joyful depictions of the Christmas-present-delivering icon, Hollywood began offering darker and occasionally twisted takes on Santa Claus in the later years of the 20th century, ranging from the psychotic killer of the Silent Night, Deadly Night series to Billy Bob Thornton’s depressingly hilarious turn in Bad Santa and now the Nelms Brothers of Small Town Crime acclaim are here to deliver their darkly humorous update with Fatman. While it may occasionally suffer from some jarring tonal shifts and a few unanswered questions, the film largely succeeds thanks to its unique approach to the character as well as the performances and offbeat atmosphere throughout.
To save his declining business, Chris Cringle (Mel 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 (Walton 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-dark comedy that keeps on giving.
Right from the start of the film, it becomes apparent that the tone of the film is certainly aiming for a darker, quirkier angle, namely in its central antagonists, spoiled brat Billy and the cold, mysterious hitman Skinny Man. The sheer fact that Skinny Man never once questions whether he should be taking money from a 12-year-old child or his jobs, including intimidating a classmate into admitting cheating for a science fair so Billy can keep his Top Prize streak alive, is such an odd but hilarious dynamic that breeds some quietly humorous dialogue from Skinny Man as he occasionally expresses a distaste for his employer.
When the film isn’t following Skinny Man and Billy’s efforts to track down its titular character, we get to watch as Mel Gibson steps into arguably the most exciting and interesting character in nearly a decade for the two-time Oscar winner. Though he offered fun turns in 2012’s Get the Gringo and 2016’s Blood Father, many of his recent performances have lacked an air of warmth from the star akin to 2011’s The Beaver, but as Chris Cringle the 64-year-old performer truly shines. From his clear regrets of watching children led astray and having to partner with the US Military to the love he has for bringing joy to the world and for his wife, Gibson skillfully taps into every emotion that makes him compelling to watch from start to finish.
In addition to the solid performances from Gibson, Goggins and Marianne Jean-Baptiste, the film’s evolution of the lore of Santa Claus proves to be a thoroughly original and interesting take on the jolly character. The lack of addressing that Mrs. Claus is Black instead of the typical white woman seen in various past depictions feels very natural and like a nice change of pace, the fact that people do see Santa Claus whilst flying his sled and occasionally take shots at him is a fairly realistic concern to raise and the revelation that he has some form of regeneration when injured turns him into a Wolverine-like hero that we never knew we wanted from the jolly red fatman.
The film’s only real issues lie in some of its tonal imbalances and disappointing or unanswered plot points. For nearly half the film, Chris expresses concern over the possible partnership with the military to keep his gift-giving business alive, but never once addresses what he or the elves would have to do for the government, the answer only coming when he finally relinquishes and partners with them. Early in the film, we’re offered teases that Goggins’ Skinny Man has some beef or obsession with Santa Claus and while an attempt at leaving it a mystery to the audience is a fine thought, it’s pretty obvious the reasoning why and when the moment arrives for a bit of exposition, it falls fairly flat and I was left not really caring or siding with either character.
Minor flaws aside, the Nelms Brothers’ Fatman is a truly exciting, unique and intriguing new entry into the Santa Claus subgenre that may not connect with all but is sure to garner a cult following with those who like their eggnog with a little extra punch.