It has come to my attention recently that many of the movies I take time to write about I hesitate to wholeheartedly recommend. Sometimes I see a new take on my favorite old stories and genres: westerns and martial arts; sci-fi and time travel; fantasy and fractured fairy tales. They may be thought-provoking, but somewhat strange; often they are objectionable in some way that makes me guard against a full endorsement.
Last fall I caught wind of an upcoming movie called Fatman, featuring Mel Gibson as a world-weary Santa with a price on his head. You may know that I am a big fan of the Man in Red in almost any interation, from the saintly Bishop of Myra to Father Christmas in Narnia to the Right Jolly Old Elf of my own childhood traditions. I imagined a foul-mouthed and violent “bad Santa” bent on revenge of some sort, and I was not a fan of the idea. The trailer suggested I wasn’t far from the truth:
But then somewhere along the way I read a review that suggested it might be a bit more than it appeared. I hemmed and hawed until almost Christmas, when my older kids suggested we watch it. So we did. After the initial viewing, I was concerned that I might actually like the movie. I spoke in hushed tones to the few others I knew who had seen it. Many of them kinda liked it too.
Still, I didn’t write about it. Give it a year, I thought, to see if the novelty wears off.
Well, it didn’t. So here goes.
Fatman imagines a secular, but still miraculous, Chris Cringle, living outside a small town in Alaska. He and Mrs. Cringle have been at their work a long time. Since governments and economies the world over count on the annual economic stimulus the holiday brings, they subsidize his toymaking operation despite fewer and fewer believers and more and more really naughty children.
I won’t pretend to understand how this contractual give-and-take makes any actual sense; it serves primarily to make Santa and his elves beholden to the US government in order to introduce a military subplot that ups the stakes and body count when the action starts.
Gibson’s centuries-old Santa is tired and frustrated; he feels like he’s failing the kids, his employees, and the world. His wife, played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, is the voice of reason, providing practical advice and encouragement along with cookies and cocoa, and doing her best to remind him why they do what they do. (Turns out it’s not about the money—who knew?)
Meanwhile, one really bad boy with a murderous streak and access to a big checking account is furious to have received only coal under his Christmas tree. He orders a hit on Santa, from the one man on earth who would take such a request seriously: an assassin played by Walton Goggins who also bears “the fatman” a grudge for what he didn’t deliver many years before.
Of course, the two square off at the end of the movie, the fat man and the skinny one, after the assassin scatters the elves and lays waste to their Artic toy operation (fortunately just after Christmas). The outcome I’ll leave for you to discover.
I admit it now: I like this movie. Three things, in particular, stand out:
- Gibson and Jean-Baptiste bring a beautiful, lived-in quality to their relationship as Santa and Mrs. Claus. They bicker, they flirt, they complain and still support each other. They love each other as husband and wife. From the standpoint of the marriage, they may be my favorite version of these characters on film. (And there’s not the least hint of a statement behind a Black woman playing Mrs. Claus with a white Santa. She there, she’s his wife, and she’s perfect, as it ought to be.)
- Gibson’s Santa knows too much about the world and everyone in it. His bearded, craggy face shows the burden he bears: He sees clearly the lonely husband contemplating cheating, the abused child lashing out…all the brokenness he can’t fix with toys. We usually imagine a jolly Santa Claus, but the list Chris has to check is long, detailed, and distressing.
- Ultimately, the message of the movie is solid: There comes a time when we answer for our actions. We may grow up parentless, suffer slights and oversights, or undergo serious loss and trauma, but it won’t excuse the evil we do. Mercy is only mercy in the face of the real possibility of justice—and in the end, justice is always served.
From my perspective, Fatman is a strange sort of modern fairytale—a dark, fantastic story told to share moral truth. It is bloody and weird, to be sure. The assassin is foul-mouthed and coldly violent, and the rich boy who hires him is an unbelievably wicked and skilled criminal for his age. The whole military angle makes no sense for the Santa I believe in, and this movie is not for children.
But I do like it. By now, you should have some idea whether or not you might, too.
One last point: To me, the final duel recalls in several ways the end of the classic John Wayne western True Grit. If you watch this movie, let me know if you see any parallels.