Billy Bob Thornton did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Golden Globe, for portraying Willie T. Soke in Bad Santa.
Billy Bob Thornton is an actor who technically was never defined by a single genre, as before and after his breakout in the drama Sling Blade, he's taken roles in any type film really. It is interesting to see him land on the fully lead role in a broad comedy, and his approach is distinctly Thornton. As with his performance in The Man Who Wasn't There, for much of this film the appeal of his work comes from the consistency of the exact approach he takes. In this case his approach is playing Willie Soke as a man who just does not give a crap. We see this from his first scene where Thornton portrays the minimal amount of effort as Willie performs his duties as a Santa Clause more than halfheartedly coughing out his question of what the kids want for Christmas before kicking them off his lap, while barely even staying in the seat through extreme slough as sitting up straight would seem to require too much of him. Thornton's approach is most fitting to a man who rather pee his pants then bother to go to the bathroom since that would just a be a little too hard for him.
Now as ridiculous of a character as Willie is right from the outset, a man who even when performing the crime itself puts as little effort into as possible spending more energy in finishing off his beer before starting the job, this may seem like Thornton will give a broad over the top comedic performance. Thornton does not do that instead giving a rather down to earth portrayal of this lout, though that is what makes this performance so funny. Thornton makes it so Willie does not need to act so out of place as a store Santa, he merely is completely not right in the part even for a moment. Thornton's hilarious here by staying so true to this approach which is to just be so pure in being Willie as this "scum of the earth". It is a little bit fascinating that in different context this would almost be a disturbing performance but given where he is and what he's doing it is instead comedic gold. Thornton just is this low down sort in everything and it is almost strange how funny he is in this by how he doesn't hold back. When he randomly breaks something because it just for whatever reason is bugging him at the wrong time Thornton goes all in with his anger, but since what he's usually beating up is say a plastic reindeer it is most amusing.
Thornton is consistent in his portrayal of Willie but he is in no way one note as he finds so many ways to reveal just how much of a slob the man is. This is in his general disdain for all things, but he undercuts this so comically with his rabid desires for drink and women which he will not stop seeking just because he's Santa such as with his lusty glances towards any woman whether she wants them or not. Thornton's great though with the complete lack of skill he presents in Willie's whole routine portraying him as a guy who is just going to do what he does and that seems to be it. The thing is though Thornton's approach to give technically a honest though hilarious performance is pivotal to his development of Willie. This being that even at his very worst Thornton portrays always a thick layer of self-loathing in everything that Willie does. When he's trying to have some of his fun it feels less of a thrill and more of some temporary reprieve from his horrible existence. Thornton shows his personality to be specifically toxic by how little joy he reveals Willie has in life and how real his hatred is which alludes to years of abuse even before he tells his story.
Now this performance is rather incredible as Thornton pulls off something quite remarkable even past just being so funny throughout, which is he ends up being kind of moving too. This comes in Willie's relationship with a strange little boy Thurman who Willie starts living with as the boy the lives alone with a senile grandmother in a very large home. Thornton's portrayal of Willie's relationship with the boy is technically where his arc lies, though again Thornton does this in a very specific way. Early on Thornton portrays a fascination with the weird boy that is again hilarious as he depicts in his reactions to the boy. Thornton reveals the wheels turning in Willie's head as he tries to decipher the boy who he can't quite understand yet does see any easy mark in whoever his guardian may be. It is in this relationship though where Thornton actually reveals something important about Willie in that Thornton only plays an overt maliciousness in Willie if someone tries to get in his way of doing what he wants to do, or attempts to call him on it. Although his common state is of a cantankerous misanthrope and he set off very easily Thornton suggests that Willie isn't all bad.
Thornton doesn't simplify Willie by making him this nice guy though, but instead reveals his less awful side by showing it to be the motivation for his awfulness for the most part. There is a genuine pain that Thornton brings in every horrible act to Willie and that sadness technically defines the man more than his slovenly behavior. Thornton's performance reflects this throughout and in doing so earns the change in Willie by the end of the film. The reason being Thornton doesn't make it this overt change in personality rather he just portrays it as Willie finally facing his self-loathing through Thurman who passes no judgements on anyone other than himself. When Thurman beats up on himself that is where Thornton is surprisingly moving yet he makes it work in his character as in his eyes he finds a man seeing a boy suffering his same sort of suffering as his own and not liking it. I love the moment where the Thurman gives Willie a gift as Thornton's performance is so perfect in realizing how this causes a change in Willie. It isn't a clean change of a bad man becoming a good man, but rather Thornton presents a man being forced to look at his sorrow directly since he can't lash out against someone who only ever showed him love. Of course this all sounds a little dramatic and the thing is Thornton stays consistently amusing even as he reveals the better Willie. A great moment near the end is a showdown with his thieving partners who intend on killing him, and Willie breaks down. Thornton does not portray this breakdown out of fear, but rather out of sentiment that they are missing the true meaning of Christmas. This should not make sense as even in this moment it's still pretty funny to see the rough Willie break down, but it is also affecting because Thornton's "dramatic" approach earns it. This is a fantastic performance because it gives you everything you expect you want out of the lead of "BAD SANTA" in terms of the comedy yet brings enough depth to this to allow a heartfelt discovery of the Christmas spirit though in the messy way fitting to Willie T. Soke.