“You think I got this job because I’m fat and jolly?!?” — Santa Claus roaring at an adversary in “Fatman.”
You BETTER watch out, you BETTER not cry, you BETTER not pout, I’m telling you why:
Santa Claus is having none of that.
Santa Claus is in a mood. Santa Claus is a hard-drinking, world-weary, financially strapped and deeply cynical S.O.B. who laments to his wife, “We should have charged royalties for my image” and describes his worldview thusly: “All I have is a loathing for a world that’s forgotten.”
That’s some dark s--- right there, Santa.
So it goes in the Nelms brothers’ “Fatman,” one of the darkest takes ever on the legend of Santa Claus. Heavily bearded, wild-eyed Mel Gibson plays one Chris Cringle, who runs his operation from a town called North Peak in Alaska and is on the verge of financial ruin, mostly because so many people have lost their faith and so many kids the world over are behaving in a manner that will yield nothing but a lump of coal on Christmas morning.
Ho ho no!
“Fatman” veers wildly in tone from a dark fairy tale to a gritty, violent hitman movie. The opening scenes center on mean-spirited, rotten-to-the-core 12-year-old named Billy (Chance Hurstfield), a sociopath in the making. (I’d be afraid to look at this kid’s social media footprint.) When seeking revenge on classmates or concocting some twisted plot, Billy often enlists the services of a mercenary known only as Skinny Man (Walton Goggins), who, like Billy, has been scarred by Christmas morning disappointment. Skinny Man is so obsessed with compensating for his own tragic childhood he spends exorbitant amounts to purchase old Christmas treasures from adults. When a thirtysomething enters Skinny Man’s lair with a genuine Santa Claus-made baseball bat from his youth, Skinny Man hisses: “What do you think your childhood dream is worth?”
Meanwhile, business at North Peak keeps dwindling. (There’s not a whole lot of exposition explaining how it was ever profitable to make zillions of toys and deliver them on Christmas Eve, but there you have it.) So when Chris Cringle is offered a military contract, he has no choice to accept it, much to the chagrin of his loyal elves, who nevertheless rise to the challenge and get back to work, under the watchful eye of uniformed personnel. If that sounds weird to you, that’s because it IS weird.
Marianne Jean-Baptiste plays Cringle’s loyal and supportive wife, Ruth, who reminds her husband they’ve been through many a tough time through the decades (maybe even through the centuries, as it’s clear they’ve been together a very long time). Chris appreciates and loves his wife, but he’s near the end of his rope, and he often slinks away to the local dive bar to drown his sorrows and lament the state of the world. Little does he know things are about to go from bad to bloody worse, as the bratty Billy has hired Skinny Man to assassinate the Fatman himself! That’s right, Skinny Man is going to make the long and arduous trek to North Peak, track down Chris Cringle and put a bullet in his head. So much for a Silent Night, children.
Walton Goggins turns in a memorably crazy performance as the psychotic killer Skinny Man, who casually dispatches victims whether they’re naughty or nice, sometimes in hilariously dark fashion. Gibson takes his role seriously as well, but it’s as if Cringle and Skinny Man exist in a Liam Neeson-esque (or Mel Gibson-esque) violent thriller, while most of the characters around them are in a fractured fairy tale. “Fatman” skids and slides and careens between genres and never finds solid footing in any one place, and ultimately winds up as an interesting failed experiment.