I don’t mean to alarm anybody but it appears that at some point between the time I watched WILLARD back in 2003 and yesterday, somebody magically changed the tone of the entire film. What was once a quirky, dark-humored revenge flick concerning adorable critters is now a morbidly tragic character study that mercilessly kicked my heart in the crotch. I didn’t even know my heart had a crotch. Now I understand why this wasn’t a huge hit. Honey, I shrunk the cathartic payoff! I feel horrible right now thanks to WILLARD but that’s not saying I’m not happy about it.
One thing that has not changed since my first viewing is the fact that CRISPIN GLOVER is wonderful in the title role. I’m not just saying that because he’s weird and I mistake weirdness for talent. I don’t buy into that stuff. I was voted most likely to feel apathetic towards JOHNNY DEPP seventy million times in a row! GLOVER just IS Willard. He’s owns it like a birthright. He’s fearless and gracefully awkward and heartbreaking and you want to save him but you can’t. And what a face…he’s like a twisted male GARBO!
Modern science will never be able to explain my penchant for stories concerning abuse-baiting social misfits failing to connect with the world but not failing to reside in big creepy houses with fantastic furniture. It’s one of those mysteries that will never be solved like why does the Loch Ness monster always leave the cap off the toothpaste and how come I woke up barefoot in an alley? Focus. Poor Willard is trapped in life. In fact, there are tons of gates, bars and cages everywhere he goes. People treat him poorly and are remarkably unmoved by the fact that he has the coolest nose ever captured on film. Life pretends not to be a nightmare for a brief time when he makes a new friend in a rat he names Socrates. Unfortunately, caring for something breeds vulnerability and the road to hell is paved in cheese. Willard may be the low man on the totem pole at work but in his basement, he becomes a God or at least relatively tall in comparison to his followers. He builds an army of rats and my dream is he’ll take over the world.
But then there is the problem of Ben. Ben is the shadow rat. He’s dark where Socrates is snow white. The pair make like a little angel and a little devil standing on Willard’s shoulders and whispering in his ears. You could say one represents good and the other evil but who still believes in such outdated things? I think Socrates represents the hopeful dream and big fat Ben represents reality. Willard goes to sleep at night cuddled next to Socrates imagining a friend-filled future free from the cage but every morning, no matter what, he wakes up with that darn Ben staring back at him. Ben reminds him of his suffocating mother (the delightfully corpse-like JACKIE BUROUGHS), his battle-axe boss (R. LEE ERMEY, you know the drill) and his absent by way of suicide Dad (an image only cameo by original WILLARD (1971) star BRUCE DAVISON). He underlines with a black marker the truth Willard does not want to face; his fate is in the hands of others and that he’ll never steer the ship. Ben’s not all bad news though, because he’ll also chew the face off anyone he’s told to. But ultimately Willard betrays Ben and, in doing so, he betrays his own dark side and his own latent power. He fails to merge and become whole. I sympathize but it’s frustrating.
One thing that’s nice about WILLARD the film is that it’s remarkably old fashioned. It’s thoughtfully shot and nobly spends quality time setting up the party and handing out the nametags to all the guests. Sadly though, I think its archaic nature also demands that Willard find comeuppance for his deeds and I’m not feeling that. I know, I sound like a hypocrite because I usually say happy endings are for cowards but in this lone case, I’m making an exception. This is my thing but it fails to be my super-thing by not doing what I’m telling it to do nearly a decade after its release. My recipe would be: more human death, less animal death! Yes, I’m proud to be one of those shameful folks who hold the lives of animals in higher regard than the lives of humans! Surprisingly that even includes rats. I’m supposed to feel bad about that? I’m sorry humanity but I think if you reflect on your behavior over the last thousand years, you’ll collectively realize you’re not so hot. What I’m saying is get over yourself humans and don’t feel bad when I tell you that I’d rather watch a bunch of you being slowly skinned alive than witness one rat stub its toe! Gee, no wonder I have so few friends.
WILLARD was directed by GLEN MORGAN who also did the needlessly harassed BLACK CHRISTMAS remake. Both films are visually sharp, are thrown off balance by apprehensive storytelling, boast genius scores by SHIRLEY WALKER and were born completely immune to audience appreciation. I think he’s really underrated and maybe just has a curse on his head, so I send out apologetic karma balloons in hope that it helps. WILLARD is a good movie, it’s just not always a good time but keep in mind that’s coming from somebody who would have chosen Ben over Socrates in the first place.