Believe it or not, a film like “Willard” is more difficult for me to swallow not because of its main premise — a man learns to control rats for his own purposes — but because of the personality of its lead. Crispin Glover (“Charlie’s Angels”) plays the titular character, a 30-something with slick back hair who wears his father’s old suits to work and lives with his bony, shrieking mother in their old, rat-infested house.
Willard is the ultimate downtrodden man. The film’s first 30 minutes is an avalanche of misery inflicted on him. The worst thing in Willard’s life is his boss, Martin (R. Lee Ermey), who owns the factory Willard’s father founded. The epitome of pure evil, or so it seems, Martin is an unrepentant asshole, torturing Willard at every opportunity. Because of a legal obligation that guarantees Willard a job at the company, Martin is unable to fire Willard, ever. The only person who shows any semblance of pity for Willard is Catherine (Laura Elena Harring), a pretty temp.
Being that Willard lives with his mother in the type of old, creaky house kids go out of their way to avoid, Willard has no friends. This changes when Willard captures a small white mouse in one of his traps. Unable to kill the mouse, Willard instead begins to raise it, even going so far as to sleep in the same bed with the rodent. The mouse, named Socrates, becomes an indispensable friend for the formerly friendless Willard. But there’s another rodent in the house name Ben. Ben is a rat the size of a cat, and he’s the undisputed king of rats. And unlike the sweet Socrates, Ben has a taste for blood.
Most of the problems I have with “Willard” stems from the main character’s wimpy demeanor. For much of the film, Crispin Glover shifts between a man with a seething anger on the verge of exploding to a hopeless regurgitation of his George McFly character from “Back to the Future”. Maybe it’s just my own personal demeanor, but I have very little use for Willard. He’s so incredibly useless that I don’t even blame Ermey’s Martin for doing everything he can to force Willard to quit the job. Would you want this guy to work for you?
“Willard” is based on a 1971 original, and is written by Glen Morgan, one half of the Glen Morgan/James Wong writing/directing team responsible for some of the more inspired episodes of the “X-Files”. Recently the duo have made the jump to films, and includes “Final Destination” and Jet Li’s “The One” on their list of credits. “Willard” is Morgan’s baby, and although James Wong has producer credit, the film looks nothing like the duo’s previous body of works.
As the sole director, Morgan gives “Willard” a surreal, almost comic-booky quality. The look of the house, and even the look of Willard himself, seems unreal. Ermey’s complete jerk of a character also adds to the unnatural vibe of things, and maybe this is the perfect aura to project when your film is about a lonely guy who teaches rodents to do neat tricks like maneuver through obstacle courses in his basement. Actually, there is surprisingly very little time spent on Willard’s training of the rodents. There is a very quick sequence when Willard, by pure accident, learns that by using simple words he can direct the rodents like a General would his troops on a battlefield. All of this seems very unlikely, of course, but in the context of the movie’s surreal atmosphere, it’s not completely out of the question.
Fans of the original may be wondering what the rats look like. It’s noteworthy to reveal that most of the rodents in the movie are “played” by real-life rodents, and that there were only a couple of quick scenes that employed CGI rats (at least that I could detect). (Hint: The scenes that use fake rats appear in the movie’s trailer.) For the most part, the white mouse Socrates and the large, ever-present rat Ben are very real. Under Morgan’s direction, Ben is extremely believable; he’s cunning and sinister and always seems to be one step ahead of Willard. This rat is dangerous.
Co-star Laura Elena Harring (“Derailed”) seems completely out of place in the movie. Not only is her character a little too grounded and sane for what’s going on, but Catherine gets to be a little irritating and hapless after a while. For example: In an effort to keep the rats out of the house, Willard has taped up all of the toilet seats. What does Catherine do when she comes across a toilet with duct tape over it? Why, she tears the duct tape off and uses the toilet! You would think she might take a moment to consider that there may be a reason Willard did this, but I guess not.
Despite what the movie’s advertising would have you believe, “Willard” is not nearly as violent or dark as you would think. There are actually only two scenes of rat-on-human violence, and both appear in the film’s final 15 minutes. Besides a terrific 20-minute span where Willard engages in what amounts to a mental battle with Ben along the hallways, rooms, and closet spaces of the house, the rest of the film is devoted to poor Willard suffering under the hands of Ermey.
All of this, of course, is to wind the audience up for the inevitable payoff at the end. One guess on who will be the victim of honor at that banquet.
Glen Morgan (director) / Glen Morgan (screenplay)
CAST: Crispin Glover …. Willard
David Parker …. Detective Boxer
Jackie Burroughs … Willard’s Mother
Kristen Cloke …. Dr. Bludworth
R. Lee Ermey …. Frank Martin
Laura Elena Harring … Catherine