Christmas’ jovial cheer is welcomed by most, but some seek a bit more ingenuity from their holiday offerings. Whether it’s the foul-mouthed tirades of Bad Santa or the macabre ruminations of Batman Returns, certain films aptly utilize the holiday season to trailblaze their own territory amongst the crowded subgenre. In the latest Yuletide detour Fatman, Eshon and Ian Nelms construct a spirited genre picture from the season’s familiar themes.
Fatman follows a rowdy, unorthodox Santa Claus (Mel Gibson), who is fighting to save his declining business. Meanwhile, Billy, a neglected and precocious 12-year-old, hires a hitman (Walton Goggins) to kill Santa after receiving a lump of coal in his stocking.
I was a supporter of Eshon and Ian’s last feature Small Town Crimes, an overlooked neo-noir defined through the brothers’ quirky voice. Fatman‘s strongest allures are a byproduct of that sensibility. The duo take our preconceived notions towards Santa Clause’s jolly image and flips them on their head. Their screenplay slyly comments on the holiday’s superficial elements by cutting away the sentimental veneer, with Santa and his merry band of elves mainly working under the pretenses of making a living. It’s a refreshing change of pace, a direction that the Nelms further bolster through clever world-building devices (Santa being contracted by the US military due to his tireless workforce is quite amusing).
At all junctures, the Nelms craft a film that relishes in its naughty nature. Nothing represents this better than Mel Gibson’s against-type casting as Saint Nick himself. Portraying a jaded Santa after years of dealing with ungrateful children, Gibson’s gruff image is a picture-esque fit for the role. He commands the screen with gravitas while slowly peeling layers of warmth from the character’s rigid exterior. Walton Goggins also has a blast as a hitman with his own eccentric verve, while Marianne Jean-Baptiste emanates a positive glow onscreen as Mrs. Clause.
The dynamic performances perform the heavy-lifting for the character’s skeletal nature, carrying the narrative load before the climactic, western-style standoff takes place. Opinions may vary, but I appreciate the Nelms’ intimate handling of the old school showdown. The duo exhibits a steady hand while allowing the slow-burn tension to reach a satisfying boiling point.
The base of Fatman boasts a plethora of positive traits, though I wish the Nelms built further upon their sturdy foundation. The script’s deconstruction of the holiday commercial nature could benefit from a sharper satirical bend. Dialogue-driven frames can spell out the thematic conceits with a clumsy obviousness, while numerous attempts at humor land with hit-or-miss results (Billy mostly acts as an uninteresting cliche). With another pass, the underbaked elements could have elevated the intriguing ideas into a more astute thesis.
Flaws and all, Fatman‘s distinct voice imbues a fresh edge to its straight-forward genre formula. With a few hits on their hands, I will be first in line to support whatever the Nelms do next with their promising career.
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