Hoping to deliver a Yuletide story for our dark, divided times, the directors and brothers Ian Nelms & Eshom Nelms came up with “Fatman,” a soot-black comedy with a heaping side of social commentary.
Somewhere in the Alaskan backwoods, we meet Chris Cringle (Mel Gibson), not a bad Santa so much as a depressed one. A grizzled grouch who’s wearied by the commercialization of Christmas and a faithless public, Chris faces a failing business and a disappearing government subsidy. With a workshop full of elves to feed, Chris and his staunchly supportive wife (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) reluctantly accept a military contract to make the kind of item too dangerous for any child’s Christmas list.
Pitting old-school rural values against rich-folk amorality, “Fatman” gives Santa a miniature nemesis in the 12-year-old Billy (Chance Hurstfield), a nascent sociopath fermenting in suburban luxury and parental neglect. Enraged by Santa’s gift of coal on Christmas morning, Billy dispatches his on-call assassin (the always welcome Walton Goggins) to exact murderous revenge.
Waffling between anger and pathos, dry humor and dead-eyed violence, “Fatman” feels tonally befuddled. As fans of HBO’s “Vice Principals” will attest, Goggins can dance on this sort of knife edge with ease, but the script (by the directors) isn’t sharp enough to support his or Gibson’s efforts — or even smoothly incorporate its theme of reverberating childhood trauma.
A more substantive and enjoyable critique is found among the elves, a multiethnic crew known only by numbers and fed solely on carbs and sugar. Awed by their efficiency and voluntary sleep deprivation, a military captain can only gaze approvingly on what seems less like Santa’s workshop than his very own sweatshop.
Rated R for guns, drugs and an unhealthy supply of cookies. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes. In theaters. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.