Bad Santa: Zwigoff’s Christmas Tale as Black Comedy

An American Christmas movie that unfolds as a black comedy sounds strange, but it’s a term that describes well Bad Santa, and the rest of the work of director Terry Zwigoff.

Billy Bob Thornton shines in the lead, and so are Bernie Mac, Lauren Graham, Tony Cox, Brett Kelly, Lauren Tom, and John Ritter (in his last screen role before untimely death in 2003).

The film, exec-produced by the Coen brothers, screened out of competition at the 2004 Cannes Film Fest.

Due to fans’ demand, an unrated version was released on DVD on March 5, 2004 and on Blu-ray on November 20, 2007 as Bad(der) Santa. A director’s cut DVD was released in November 2006 (including ommentary by him and the editor), which is three minutes shorter than the theatrical cut and ten minutes shorter than the unrated version.

Willie T. Stokes and Marcus are professional heistmen who embrace the Santa Clau routine for children at a different shopping mall every year as a front for the opportunity to disable the mall security system, clean out the safe, and then flee on Christmas Eve.  Far from being the typical American protagnist, Willie is alcoholic, sex addict to Marcus’ dismay.

This year, Willie and Marcus are hired at a mall in Phoenix, Arizona and Willie’s vulgar remarks shock the prudish mall manager Bob Chipeska who brings Willie to the attention of security chief Gin Slagel.  But at the bar bar, Willie initiates begins love affair by charming the bartender Sue who has a Santa fetish.

During his shift as Santa, Willie is visited by Thurman, a naive, overweight boy, who believes Willie is actually Santa and is the target of taunts from a gang. When Willie is in the parking lot, he is attacked by Ajay Naidu, who watched him in the bar insisting he is not gay. Thurman intervenes, and Naidu leaves, not wanting to expose the kid to adult matters.

Willie gives Thurman a ride and walks into the boy’s affluent house, where he lives with his senile grandmother. Thurman reveals that his mother passed away, and his father is away “exploring mountains” (he’s in jail for embezzlement). Thurman makes no resistance when Willie breaks into the safe and the takes his father’s BMW.

Bob overhears Willie having anal sex with a woman in a mall dressing room. When Willie goes to his motel room, a cop is awaiting him. Willie takes advantage of Thurman’s naivety and takes residence in his house claiming that “Mrs. Santa caught me fucking her sister,” enduring Thurman’s relentless questions while engaging in verbal abuse.

Marcus states his disapproval of Willie’s “serial fornicating” and “trying to float my liver silly because I can’t stand what a piece of shit I am.  Gin’s investigation of Willie includes visit to Thurman’s imprisoned father, and revealing that Willie’s staying there illegally.

When Thurman visits Willie sitting in the BMW in Thurman’s garage running the engine to commit death by inhaling exhaust fumes, Willie gives Thurman a letter to give to the police, confessing his misdeeds. When he notices Thurman’s black eye, a repentant Willie trains Thurman in boxing along with Marcus.

On Christmas Eve, when the heist is almost complete, Marcus reveals to Willie that he intends to finish him off, fed up with his increasing carelessness when the police swarm them, tipped off by the letter Willie gave to Thurman, when Willie, regretting extensively abusing Thurman, is determined to deliver his stuffed elephant. When Marcus opens fire, drawing police fire, Willies flees leading the police on a chase to Thurman’s house, ignoring police request to freeze ends with him repeatedly shot on the porch.

The epilogue is told through a letter from Willie, that Thurman’s giving the police the letter cleared his name, that shooting a Santa embarrassed the police with all the bullets missing his vital organs except his liver which he notes was already damaged and that Sue is granted guardianship over Thurman and his house. When Thurman goes out to ride his bike, he kicks the skateboard gang’s leader in the groin correcting his misbelief that the bike belongs to him, and Thurman rides off, with the middle finger over his shoulder and ending in a titlecard, dedicated to John Ritter, referencing his recent passing away.

The film was a commercial hit, grossing over $60 million in the U.S.


Billy Bob Thornton as Willie T. Stokes
Tony Cox as Marcus
Brett Kelly as Thurman Merman
Lauren Graham as Sue
Lauren Tom as Lois
Bernie Mac as Gin Slagel
John Ritter as Bob Chipeska
Octavia Spencer as Opal
Cloris Leachman as Granny (uncredited)
Alex Borstein as Milwaukee mom
Billy Gardell as Milwaukee Security Guard
Bryan Callen as Miami bartender
Tom McGowan as Harrison
Ajay Naidu as Hindustani Troublemaker
Ethan Phillips as Roger Merman