Santa Slays

Billy Bob Thornton vs. kids in Bad Santa. Tom Cruise vs. capitalism in The Last Samurai.

At home in Japan

In theaters this holiday season are two melodramas of redemption that begin with their heroes stinking drunk: the disillusioned Indian fighter Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise), who ultimately joins forces with a band of fundamentalist nationalist warriors against the armies of Western capitalist modernity in The Last Samurai (Warner Bros.); and the alcoholic, misanthropic, big-butt fetishist Willie (Billy Bob Thornton), who sort of half-discovers the maybe-true meaning of Christmas at the end of Bad Santa (Dimension). Both films are a fascinating mixture of the conventional and the outlandish, but only Bad Santa has a sense of humor about its own absurdity. The Last Samurai is reverently nuts.

It is a western, fundamentally, and in a tradition of genre pictures about former Indian hunters who learn to think like the “savages.” In the old days, this enabled them to hunt Indians better—and that’s one of the buried tropes in Ron Howard’s The Missing, the have-it-both-ways western in which Tommy Lee Jones can be both of the Indians (he abandoned his white family and Western culture for the way of the Apache) and the only man who can kill them—to liberate his granddaughter from demonic homicidal redskins who want to sell her to Mexicans. The Last Samurai is from a liberal, racially conscious counterculture Western tradition, as befits its director, Edward Zwick (Glory [1989], The Siege [1998]). Its protagonist, Algren, served with Custer (whom he loathed for his arrogance and sadism) and has visions of Native American women and children being shot down as they flee. In the course of the movie, he will enter into another ancient, mystical, non-rationalist culture—the way of the Japanese samurai. He will overcome his alcoholism, learn to fight without all that pesky thinking, and discover his deep-seated spirituality. (The Last Samurai doesn’t really have the guts to be a true “conversion” melodrama, because Algren isn’t shown doing anything wrong in the Indian massacre scenes. He registers horror and attempts to convince his fellow officers to stop.)

The movie—from a script credited to John Logan, Marshall Hershkovits, and Zwick—is a real piece of narrative spoon-feeding: All its themes are laid out like index cards on a screenwriter’s bulletin board, and each plot turn seems so inevitable that you’ll think you saw this movie in a previous life. (You did.) First the drunken, guilt-ridden Algren is enlisted by the Japanese government (in collusion with American business and military leaders) to suppress the rebellion of “another tribal leader,” a samurai lord called Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe). “I am beset by the ironies of my life,” intones Cruise, in a voice-over, while his long hair blows in the breeze as his ship docks in 1876 Yokohama. He’s not the only one beset by ironies. When he’s captured by Katsumoto and gradually falls in love with the culture of the remote mountain village in which he’s held, it’s like we’re in a pre-9/11 time warp. It’s weird to watch, nowadays, a film in which the American hero is seduced by the other side’s warlord to fight against his own “barbarian” capitalist country—to see the multiplex audience cheer a man who it could well, in a slightly different context, want to see tried and executed. Movies can manipulate you to root for just about anyone, anytime.

Cruise gives a confident superstar performance and one with no off-putting 19th-century period airs: When he puts on a ceremonial robe and makes a few self-conscious warrior moves, he’s the same guy in his underwear from Risky Business (1983) minus some baby fat and an overbite. He seems to have learned the lesson from his Japanese co-stars—especially Watanabe as Katsumoto, the proud leader of a samurai collective—that it wouldn’t be cool to be caught doing a lot of American Method overemoting. As they say in prison, Cruise holds his mud.

Zwick lets his go: There are scorchingly well-shot and -edited action scenes, especially compared with Ron Howard’s incoherent shootouts in The Missing. Ninja assassins burst through shoji screens and go blade to blade with Algren and Katsumoto—and you’re wowed by the kinetic fury while just grasping the sense. The climactic battle scene—in which waves of samurais attack waves of musket-waving government troops before the military breaks out the Howitzers—is a blur of long blades and arrows and rifle barrels, yet Zwick doesn’t lose his bearings.

It’s only in retrospect that you might be hit by the colossal waste—human, not cinematic.

Katsumoto goes into battle for the last time after the ruling council refuses to let him enter the chamber with his sword, and I thought, “Take off your goddamned sword.” I also thought, “Who cares if a bunch of Japanese businessmen want to wear English bowler hats?” The finale of The Last Samurai is blood-engorged orgy that ends with a quasi-erotic embrace between two bullet-ridden warriors. You can’t really hate a war that ends with the senseless death of thousands when it gives rise to the year’s most romantic clinch.

Bad Santa is basically one joke, over and over: Billy Bob’s Willie is disgusting. He says vile things to kids and viler things to their parents, and when he isn’t brusquely going through the motions as Santa he’s swilling vodka or sodomizing large women as well as the not-too-large and very sweet Santa groupie played by Lauren Graham. Willie is also an ace safecracker—the one thing his derelict daddy ever taught him how to do, he says. His partner, the criminal mastermind, is a steely midget named Marcus (Tony Cox). Every year, they set up shop as Santa and an elf at a different mall or department store, and every year on Christmas Eve they crack another safe and give themselves a merry little Christmas indeed.

One of the things you have to get past is that there’s no way even the laziest and most inattentive parents would let their kids sit on this guy’s lap, and no way they’d let him keep spewing four letter words and waving around broken liquor bottles and passing out and wetting his Santa suit without calling the cops. To feel the true joy of Bad Santa you have to step outside the narrative and put yourself in the heads of Thornton and the director, Terry Zwigoff (who, on the basis of Crumb [1994], has a connoisseur’s appreciation for big butts), and the executive producers, Joel and Ethan Coen. You have to imagine them watching the first encounter between Willie and the motherless and fatherless kid who will ultimately stir him to sort of Christmassy humanist acts—an obese simpleton played by Brett Kelly with a big blob of snot under his nose. Willie, drunk, can’t even be bothered to affix his beard properly, and when the poor kid queries him on the absence of hair, he replies that he lost it because he was sick:

Kid: How did you get sick?Willie: Santa loved a woman who wasn’t clean.Kid: Mrs. Santa?Willie: Her sister.

You have to imagine what it felt like when the director yelled, “Cut!” and everyone collapsed on the set and said, “Can we get away with this? Is nothing sacred?”

Billy Bob Thornton’s performance is—there’s no other word—beautiful. When Thornton played the James Carville figure in Primary Colors, his timing was great but he didn’t have that outsized, demented, swallow-the-world quality that Carville himself radiates; Thornton is curdled and bilious, with sallow skin and liver lips. He doesn’t click in every part but he’s the greatest Bad Santa imaginable. He’s in a tradition of Southern/Texan misanthropic derelict nihilists, the arena of Hunter S. Thompson, Harry Crews,  and Terry Southern. Those of us who love it (and not everyone does, to say the least) go for the mixture of the archly sophisticated and the potty-mouthed.

Bad Santa is a gonzo parody of a Christmas redemption movie, but it also hits all the Christmas redemption movie beats, which means you also get that warm fuzzy feeling while Lauren Graham is chanting, “Fuck me, Santa. Fuck me, Santa. Fuck me, Santa” while Thornton goes at her from behind. It isn’t really subversive because it doesn’t have subversive ideas: It’s domesticated gonzo, like the equally fun but much cleaner School of Rock. Willie’s Christmas epiphany is when he stands up for the kid, who’s being bullied by some skater boys. Later he tells Marcus, “I beat the shit out of some kids today … but it was for a purpose.”

The kid, meanwhile, is dopey and ingenuous—or, to use the patois of Billy Bob’s Willie, a retard. It isn’t entirely clear if he believes that this criminal alcoholic pervert is Santa or that he thinks this is the best Santa someone like him could ever get and therefore chooses to believe. I think it’s the latter, which brings a tear to my aged eye. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. It just depends how low you’re willing to sink.