Bad Santa (2003)


Even in this cash-strapped and cynical era, folks still feel obliged to believe in the myth of Holiday Spirit. In movies, this typically takes the form of the curmudgeon who finds the true meaning of Christmas, and those few comedies that dare to poke fun at the ridiculousness of the whole enterprise are careful to pour on the sugar in time for the final credits.

And so, I hold little hope for Bad Santa‘s box office potential. I’m not sure what time of year would be ideal for a movie about alcoholism, defeat, and anal sex, but Christmas ain’t it. But even if it is far from flawless, Bad Santa comes closer to the reality of the season than any flick in recent memory.

Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie, an expert safe cracker who runs an annual holiday scam with his dwarf partner-in-crime, Marcus (Tony Cox). The two crooks get themselves hired to play Santa and elf at malls, as a means of casing the joints, then rob the stores blind just before Christmas. They have been successfully pulling this job for the last seven years, during which time Willie has been hitting the bottle with exponential frequency.

When they get hired for their usual roles in a mall in Arizona, Willie goes out of his way to be the anti-Santa, cursing at children and fucking shoppers in the plus-size department changing rooms (“You ain’t gonna shit right for a week!” he growls to his unseen paramour). Marcus manages to get Willie out of every jam through smooth talking and a painted-on cheery attitude, but is quickly running out of patience with his partner’s self-destructive desires. “Your soul is dogshit. Every single thing about you is ugly,” he tells Willie, who doesn’t disagree.

The TV ads for Bad Santa have gone the usual Christmas movie route, blaring Tchaikovsky over some supposedly choice clips. However, one of the most original, and terrifying, features of the movie is the near absence of music. Directors have been using music to dictate feeling ever since talkies were invented, and so the average viewer today is not used to a movie that dares to rely on its actors rather than its soundtrack to pull the emotional weight. In one scene, Willie screams at a child who dares to approach him as he’s eating, “I’m on my fucking lunch break!” In the commercial, twinkly holiday music almost makes this outburst seem whimsical. In the movie, with nothing but Thornton’s voice echoing against the tiles of the food court, accompanied by the look of terror on the child’s face, it’s frightening.

Despite the lack of ubiquitous tunes, director Terry Zwigoff has made a much louder movie than his non-documentary debut, Ghost World. If Willie isn’t screaming, he’s breaking a whiskey bottle, or peeling out of a parking lot, or suggestively bumping a pinball machine to entice a female shopper of questionable legality. But even in his most frantic moments, surrounded by screaming kids and a disapproving elf, Willie is desperately and hopelessly alone, and in this sense he shares a lot with Enid (Thora Birch) from Zwigoff’s earlier film — though he possesses little of her zest for life, or a desire for anything else for that matter, other than self-destruction.

Willie’s downward spiral is slowed down by a child who develops a strange fixation on him (played by Brett Kelly and referred to during most of the movie as simply The Kid). Willie takes full advantage of the boy’s obsession and invites himself to live in The Kid’s house, where his presence is barely noticed by The Kid’s nigh-catatonic grandmother (Cloris Leachman). The Kid has a chilling face that registers no emotion, and the seeming ability to shrug off all of Willie’s obscenities, as well as insults hurled by neighborhood bullies.

Kelly is perfectly cast, with curly albino-ish hair, baby fat, and a general air of strangeness; he comes across as if spawned by a Child of the Corn and Augustus Gloop. His bizarre demeanor leaves no doubt in the viewer’s mind: this child was put on earth to be picked on. His incessant questions and insistence on calling Willie “Santa” drive him nuts, as does The Kid’s unwillingness to stand up for himself.

This, of course, sets up Willie’s redemption, aided by a love interest (Gilmore Girls‘ Lauren Graham). To its credit, the movie never fully commits to making Willie a good guy; even his efforts to be nice to The Kid result in chaos, as when he beats up a group of teenagers picking on his young charge (“I beat the shit outta some kids today, but it was for a purpose,” he declares).

If you detect the influence of the Coen Brothers in such a line, it’s perhaps because they are responsible for the story idea and produced the film. But John Requa and Glenn Ficarra’s script is fraught with problems, including the facility with which Willie mollifies the mall’s milquetoast manager (John Ritter, in his last film role) with vague threats of a “midget protest,” should he and his partner be fired. A noir-ish subplot revolving around the mall’s security supervisor (Bernie Mac) reeks of third act desperation. There might have been a way to make these fantastic elements work, but the film is too grounded in reality to find them.

The real reason to see Bad Santa, its saving grace, is Thornton’s portrayal of Willie, which he plays not as some one-joke Saturday Night Live skit, but simply as a sad, angry man, not too far from his excellent turn in The Man Who Wasn’t There. The role could easily have been played to the cheap seats, but Thornton and Zwigoff dig into reserves the screenwriters missed. Near the film’s opening, Willie and Marcus trudge across the mall’s parking lot, ready to start another year’s fraud. Heat waves ripple before them as Dean Martin slurs “Let it Snow” in the background, and Willie takes one last belt from a pocket flask, which he then chucks against a Mercedes’ windshield. This simple, useless act of destruction brings neither joy nor pain.

I saw many potential Willies when I ventured out on Black Friday and, like every other good American, spent too long waiting on a Soviet-length line for the privilege of paying for my purchases. The queue wound around several aisles of housewares, and hundreds of people had abandoned their potential purchases along the way, having had sufficient time to weigh just how much they really wanted to spend on Uncle Paulie. And as I looked around at my fellow shoppers, I noticed that not one person looked even the least bit happy. Someone would crack a joke, maybe pretend to play with a blender on the shelf to his left, but holiday cheer was nowhere to be seen. But no one was really angry or annoyed, either. All possessed the same resigned visages that Sisyphus probably had on his face as he put his shoulder to the boulder, knowing their labors won’t make them happy but also knowing that happiness is never going to be an option.

Willie is the id of the holiday, the voice whispering to us all that this whole Christmas thing isn’t fun anymore, the desire to just say, “Fuck this shit,” and spend the present money getting hammered somewhere. Bad Santa isn’t really good enough to extend this metaphor, but in its best moments, the movie taps into a very real sadness that most people try to gift-wrap away.