Whenever the topic of Christmas films arises, the first film I think of is Terry Zwigoff’s Bad Santa. Not only is Bad Santa my favourite Christmas film, but it’s right up there with my favourite films of all time. I mean honestly, what is a Christmas movie without a sex-obsessed alcoholic shopping mall Santa who specialises in both safe-cracking and foul language, accompanied by a violent and aggressive little helper who is the mastermind of the operation, a woman who is overwhelmingly sexually attracted to Santas, an awkward but wide-eyed kid who has been left largely unsupervised since his father went to prison for a white collar crime, all being tracked by a corrupt and heavily manicured head of mall security who likes to dress like a cowboy? Sounds like Christmas to me…
First things first, Bad Santa is one of those films that has several different versions of it floating around and as is usual in such cases the lesser version is the one that is most widely available. The so-called “Badder Santa” unrated version of the film is the one that has been primarily available on home video and is essentially the theatrical version with a series of additional scenes near the opening with Willie in Key Biscayne that are entirely superfluous to the story and slow down the narrative. If you skip the scenes from the “Badder Santa” version where Willie steals a car, robs a mansion and goes to a strip club, you essentially have the theatrical version. The “Director’s Cut” is the by far the best version of the film and the one that I will primarily be talking about here. The differences between the original theatrical version and the “Director’s Cut” are often subtle, but numerous. In several cases, these changes come down to different takes or extended version of the same scene, with these slight differences often adding dramatically to character, particularly highlighting Willie’s level of intoxication. However, there are two major structural changes in the “Director’s Cut” which significantly improve the film overall by removing the only false character notes. The first of these is the removal of the annoying subplot relating to Thurman’s “advent calendar” which showed a remorse in Willie which felt painfully forced. The second major change was the ending, which closes the film so much better than the original version.
As far as film openings go, Bad Santa is pretty hard to beat. Starting with Chopin’s melancholy “Nocturne In E Flat Major” as the credits roll, we see Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) sitting alone at a bar wearing a Santa costume without the beard. As revellers in groups around him laugh and smile, Willie smokes and quietly drinks his shots one by one, looking away disgusted when he accidentally sees himself in the mirror behind the bar. The next we see Willie, he’s in the alley outside the bar vomiting against the wall as the title Bad Santa appears on the screen.
We then cut to a shopping mall at Christmas and the film then very succinctly sets up character and premise. While waiting for the mall to close, Willie dressed as Santa talks flatly to the procession of weird children that sit on his lap, before wetting himself and pulling out a bottle of spirits and taking a drink. Marcus dressed as an elf berates Willie reminding him why they are there. After everyone has left the mall for Christmas and the lights are switched off, we see a snowman run through the building sliding down escalators and sprinting in order to disarm the alarm system before the countdown ends. As the snowman takes his costume off we see that it is Marcus. Marcus opens the service entrance and we see Willie surrounded by empty beer cans, who enters and works on cracking the safe as Marcus walks through the store picking out various items from a list he is carrying around. When Marcus returns Willie has just opened the safe and they take the large amount of cash inside.
Willie is summoned by a phone call from Marcus to Phoenix, Arizona and in the next shot we wonderfully see Willie in his Santa costume and Marcus in his elf costume walking through a heat haze in a parking lot as “Let It Snow” plays. Willie’s first meeting with the mall manager Bob Chipeska (wonderfully played by John Ritter) indicates that his ability to function is significantly diminished as his manic response to the prudish Bob’s polite conversation (“Performance? Like sexual? Are you saying there’s something wrong with my gear?) leaves Bob scandalised and Marcus annoyed. Bob is further disturbed when walking through the Plus Sized Woman’s Clothing section, he follows a series of noises to find Willie and a larger lady in one of the changing rooms having loud sex. Perturbed by Willie’s behaviour, Bob goes to the Mall security manager Gin (Bernie Mac) and asks him to find anything he can on Willie so that he can get rid of him.
During the parade of children visiting Santa, one particularly strange overweight kid Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), visits him and asks for a pink elephant for Christmas. Later that night Willie goes to a bar where he meets the bartender Sue (Lauren Graham) who is sexually obsessed with Santa Claus and the two have sex in his car. As she leaves a man tries to attack Willie, but Thurman intervenes. Taking Thurman home, Willie discovers that neither of his parents live there and his only “carer” is his senile grandmother (Excellently played by Cloris Leachman). Willie steals the money from the safe and Thurman’s father’s car and drives off as Thurman waves goodbye. After Willie sees Gin going over his motel room, he decides to lay low and stay at Thurman’s house.
Gin’s investigations lead him to uncover Marcus and Willie’s past and blackmails them into giving him half of their take to remain silent. Following this conversation Willie attempts to commit suicide with exhaust fumes in Thurman’s father’s car, he gives Thurman a letter to give to the police in case anything happens to him which details their crimes. Seeing Thurman’s black eye, Willie stops his suicide attempt and beats up the skateboard bully who punched Thurman. Later telling Marcus “I think I’ve turned a corner… I beat the shit out of some kids today, but it was for a purpose. Made me feel good about myself. It’s like I did something constructive with my life or something, like I accomplished something”.
The final heist scene starts slightly differently in the “Director’s Cut” with Willie doing a popper just before the mall locks up for the night, which once again just better suits the character. After he cracks the safe, Willie goes up to pick up the elephant that Thurman asked Santa for and finds Marcus preparing to kill him. However, after Thurman had given the letter to the police after Willie didn’t return, the police arrive and interrupt the robbery. Willie flees the scene still dressed as Santa with the elephant and returns to Thurman’s house where he is shot multiple times in the back by the police in front of several horrified children. All versions of the film end with Thurman reading a letter from Willie which we hear read in voiceover by Billy Bob Thornton. In the theatrical and “Badder Santa” versions we see Thurman leave the house kick the skateboard bully in the groin and flip him off as he rides off on his bike, in a scene that really doesn’t ring true. In the “Director’s Cut”, the film ends with the absolutely perfect ending of Thurman cleaning up Willie’s blood from the front porch.
Willie Soke is one of cinema’s great anti-heroes: A miserable, highly sexual, alcoholic career criminal who is seemingly only capable of communicating in profanities, but who we feel a strong affinity toward, partly due to the series of grotesques that he is surrounded by and partly because of the subtle but definite growth that the character undergoes over the course of the film. Billy Bob Thornton has claimed that he spent the entire shoot drunk, which has been (slightly) refuted by Director Terry Zwigoff, but drunk or not, his performance is outstanding, bringing so much pathos to a character that we would be set up to despise in any other film. Bad Santa is not just a great Christmas movie, it is simply a great movie and one to watch at any time during the year, there’s just more of an excuse to rewatch it at Christmas. I give it nine out of nine reindeer, although a few of those may have been severely pummelled in front of terrified children waiting in line to see Santa.