Review: Mel Gibson plays gruff Santa in violent, twisted indie flick ‘Fatman’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews 'Fatman'

Hollywood has seen its share of edgy Christmas movies, from gruesome horror films like “Black Christmas” (1974) to hilarious raunchy comedies like “Bad Santa” (2003).

If you are one who insists that “Die Hard” (1988) is a Christmas movie, get ready for “Fatman,” a twisted, violent Christmas flick that paints the North Pole blood red.

The story follows the Kringles as they age not so gracefully at the North Pole. Times are tough, so Santa takes a temporary contract with the Pentagon for the elves to build weapons for the U.S. military. However, when Santa gives a naughty kid a lump of coal, the furious boy hires an assassin to head to the North Pole and whack Santa.

Let’s face it, you’ve already made your mind up about Mel Gibson. A large segment of the audience will refuse to watch anything he’s in after his drunken, anti-Semitic tirade during his DUI arrest in 2006. This is a totally valid opinion for viewers, but film critics don’t have that luxury. We must judge each film and each role on its own merits.

Gibson is a uniquely gruff Santa. Rather than a jolly man with a fluffy white beard, he is a grizzled vet with grey whiskers protruding through black scruff. Rather than a shiny red coat, he wears the flannel of a lumberjack. Rather than Santa, he is simply called Chris. He looks like Tim Allen’s “Santa Clause” trapped inside a Quentin Tarantino flick.

Mrs. Claus is played by British actress Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who broke through in Mike Leigh’s masterpiece “Secrets & Lies” (1996) as an adoptee seeking her biological parents (stop everything if you haven’t seen it). In “Fatman,” she creates a convincing relationship with Gibson, turning domestic cabin scenes into the film’s best moments.

Filmmaking brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms provide a few North Pole homages, from elf buffets to reindeer stables, but you’ll crave more magical world building like a sweet scene of Santa reviewing “before and after” photos of kids who received toy fire trucks and grew up to be firefighters. “It’s the giving that keeps him young,” his wife says.

Aside from these fleeting holiday touches, there is a drab look to the militarized workshop, which is merely a backdrop for bloodshed by the ruthless hitman (Walton Goggins). His caller ID reads, “Little Sh*t,” referring to the ornery Billy (Chance Hurstfield), who’s addicted to mischief like a wannabe King Joffrey or Draco Malfoy.

“Fatman” is definitely not a Christmas movie for the family. In fact, we’re not really sure of the target audience for this one. The final Western-style shootout recalls the snowy showdowns of Robert Altman’s “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” (1971) or Alejandro Iñárritu‘s “The Revenant” (2015), only this time, Santa is too invincible for the stakes to matter.

I suppose the theme is that Santa Claus, like the Old Testament God, is filled with equal parts love and wrath. Turns out, positive reinforcement isn’t the only way to teach naughty kids to behave. Sometimes they need tough love from a hard immortal who will threaten them to be good — or else. This Santa puts the “sleigh” in slayer.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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