Film Review: Fatman

Directed by: The Nelms Brothers; Runtime: 100 minutes
Grade: B-

The mythology built around modern-sat Santa Clause suggests that he’s an entity with intimate knowledge of a lot of ways in which the world works, most curiously in how he knows whether all children have been good or bad during the year … and why they fit into either group. There are a bunch of other practical questions also surrounding jolly St. Nick that usually get dismissed by magic, like: “How does he run a large toy operation on zero income?” and “How is it that global governments have no idea about his existence?”, and Fatman sees those enigmas as an opportunity to explore a more human, interesting side of Chris Cringle. Wrapped in a well-paced thriller with a darkly comedic bow on top and a grizzled Mel Gibson delivering it with force, this gritty indie from the Nelms Brothers has a good time with the idea of Santa’s moral decision-making and filling the mythical gaps of his challenges posed to his everyday operations. It’s odd, for sure, and cherry-picks where to add realism and what’s best left a secret, but it strikes a novel balance between dreariness and reviving the weatherworn holiday spirit.

Gibson has been in the news recently for getting in impressive physical shape for a man in his mid-60s, and that story merely adds to the juxtaposition between the “fictionalized” Santa and the “realistic” Cris Cringle in Fatman. He’s bearded and has a deep, jolly laugh, but this guy’s far more aligned with the disposition of a blue-collar workingman: putting along in a ruby red pickup, checking a PO box, and stopping off at the local bar in a small snow-covered town. His talent for literally knowing everybody comes in handy, but the old coal-vs.-presents thing understandably leads to some dissatisfied little kids out there, like wealthy science prodigy Billy and his inclination for forcing others to give him what he wants. When Christmas doesn’t treat him right, he hires a professional hitman (Walter Goggins) to go after Santa Claus himself, which plays into his longstanding obsession with the “fat man”. Of course, Chris Cringle isn’t the same tubby, foolish guy either imagines him to be.

Not too long into Fatman, it becomes clear how the story’s strategy will play out, split in half to showcase what the “real” Santa’s and his workshop are all about and what the guy’s like that actively wants to murder the embodiment of Christmas and accepts hitjobs from a wealthy kid. The chief reason to check out the Nelms Brothers’ film obviously comes in how they’re going to overhaul the “big guy” into something real, and it’s impressive how they’re able to both methodically check off points of interest -- how he affords his workshop (or doesn't), what a genuinely understanding Mrs. Claus (delightfully played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste) would be like, how the elves are involved -- while also sticking to conventional dramatic thriller techniques. As we learn about this struggling, slightly boozy version of St. Nick and how his ties to the US government preserve his operations, the glittery mystique of the character slowly falls off and gets replaced by a more practical, yet still supernatural interpretation of his knowledge and longevity, portrayed just about perfectly by Gibson with charming gruffness and low-key formidability.

What’s interesting about Fatman is that the Nelms Brothers understand how big and brassy the Santa aspect of the film might appear, so they’ve somewhat understated and grounded that side of the story to amplify the utterly quixotic and intimidating presence of Walter Goggins’ hitman. The actor’s experience with bleakly comedic bad guys does wonders for the stone-faced killer, though one could argue that he’s even less humorous here with his training, preparations, and travels than in the roles he’s played for Tarantino or Shane Black. There’s also some unique layers to Goggins’ hitman, which extends to his young employer, Billy: the concept of people who ended up getting overlooked by Santa Claus and the entitled, confused anger they felt. Just watching Goggins blast his way through gun-range obstacle courses and coax info out of people about Santa’s location pulls you into the momentum toward reaching his target, brimming with excitement in seeing how he’s capable of matching up to the big guy. Goggins elevates the hitman’s stony, mustache-twirling villainy into something with pathos.

Fatman succeeds when it overhauls expectations and archetypes, and it’s clear that the Nelms Brothers have their fingers crossed that raw novelty and spirited execution will be enough to make those watching ignore the mundane aspects moving it forward. The only reason the plot’s intriguing is because of Santa Claus; without that added context, the setup’s little more than milquetoast veteran-vs.-upcomer suspense. The film rarely succeeds in hiding its predictable moving parts, with the amusement factor being an effective distraction only about half of the time, and there are ample logic issues whenever a realistic twist gets added to Santa Claus and neglects several others. It doesn’t help that the mastermind pulling all the strings, prep-school “little shit” Billy, ultimately makes for an obnoxious and petty villain who’s unlikely to suffer any real comeuppance. Without investment in the novelty of Fatman, which isn’t guaranteed even for those interested, everything else might just be frustrating.

It’s not giving too much away in explaining that the perimeter surrounding Santa’s workshop has transformed into a heavily fortified area, which will make it even tougher for Goggins’ hitman to reach and kill his target for the predictable clash in Fatman. Naturally, this sets up the final act of the film to be a violent game of cat and mouse, and the execution of the stealth, the explosiveness, and the fanfare leading into the inevitable square-off makes for a rousing climax, filled with military-style tactics and bravado. At this stage, perhaps strategically, the Nelms Brothers decide that it’s the right time to shake up expectations and cash in on a careful build-up of hints throughout Fatman, which results in an ending that manages to be both a cheap escape from consequence and a justified, uniquely inspiring embodiment of the mythos of Santa Claus. Seeing this bloodied, rough-and-tumble version of St. Nick sacrificing and surviving to preserve the spirit of generosity turns out to be more genuinely inspiring than many -- most? -- other Christmas movies out there, flawed as it may be.


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