|'If you've ever found yourself hankering after a festive version of The Big Lebowski then, in spirit at least, Bad Santa might be the closest you'll ever come to achieving such an oddly specific request'.|
It should come as no surprise for fans of the Coen Brothers that, as well as receiving executive producer credits on Bad Santa, Ethan and Joel also reportedly carried out some uncredited rewrites on the film's script. Willie T. Soke (Billy Bob Thornton), the surly St. Nick of the title, isn't all that far removed from one of the Coens' most iconic creations: Jeffrey "The Dude" Lebowski. In fact, if you've ever found yourself hankering after a festive version of The Big Lebowski then, in spirit at least, Bad Santa might be the closest you'll ever come to achieving such an oddly specific request.
However, whilst they may both be wastrels, Willie is initially a much tougher character to love than The Dude. From his opening monologue concocted from whiskey-chased, tobacco-infused bile, Thornton's character is lewd and rude, drunk and disorderly, treating the children who come to tell him what's on their Christmas list with all the affection you might show a particularly painful verruca. That, of course, is before we even come to the fact that he and "elf" Marcus (Tony Cox) are only there to case the department store employing the pair before carrying out a heist to see them through the next eleven months.
In the hands of many, this would be unbearable; a gross-out swear-fest that relies on base laughs and shock tactics to fill its ninety-ish minutes. But whilst director Terry Zwigoff pulls very few punches when it comes to making Willie a genuinely despicable character, his assured direction - aided by the Coens' nuanced approach to both dark and screwball comedy, often at the same time, and Thornton's delicious turn that's equal parts hedonist, nihilist and unashamed arsehole - means that Bad Santa never becomes solely about its vulgar exterior.
At its heart, Zwigoff's film is a tale of redemption, something not all that uncommon to find in Christmas narratives. Whether we like him or not - and whether we think he deserves it or not - Willie is gradually redeemed from the point at which we first meet him, largely through his tragicomic relationship with naive youngster Thurman (Brett Kelly). Anyone expecting vindication on the level of Ebenezer Scrooge or George Bailey, however, clearly hasn't been paying attention. Willie's transformation is much more subtle, demonstrating the beginnings of an empathetic capacity and a sense of purpose, even if both are often wildly misguided at times. It's a small amount of development that goes a long way; a believable first step on a new path which means that Willie is satisfyingly no longer the most reprehensible figure in Bad Santa come the film's close.