Willard (2003)

a review by Jeffrey Overstreet

Once in a while, something goes right at the movies.

Each year, audiences are drawn in by the promise of seeing great actors, but oh so rarely are those actors given the material they need to deliver on their potential. Few things are more painful to an avid moviegoer than watching talent squandered. In recent years, we’ve watched good years of actors like Steve Martin, Robin Williams, Robert Deniro, and Al Pacino wasted in projects so far beneath them — Bringing Down the House, Patch Adams, Analyze That, and Simone.

Crispin Glover has been one of those actors that we have always known had great untapped potential. It may well be that the only thing audiences remember him for is Back to the Future, where his wriggling insecurity and stammering, explosive manners nearly stole the movie out from under Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox. From time to time he popped up in roles that only teased us with glimpses of other personalities he might unleash — the mad sandwich maker of Wild at Heart, the train conductor from hell in Dead Man.

Now, in the midst of the post-Oscar-season dump, when studios are quietly clearing their throats and trying to sweep their misbegotten projects under the rug, out of the clear blue comes a minor miracle of moviemaking, that rare and wonderful perfect match of actor and character. Yes, Mr. Glover is finally unleashed in a role so perfect for him, you can’t figure out whether it’s a case of a man made for a mission or the mission made for a man. As if he can hardly contain the energy of so many silent years building up to explode, Glover makes Willard a trembling, snarling, shrieking character that, if given the right promotion and exposure, will be one for the ages.

And fortunately, he has a director who knows what he’s got. In a film that would have had most directors digging deep in their budget for special effects wizardry and wild indulgent camera effects, Glen Morgan shows remarkable restraint and control. He never lets the camera stray from the best special effect in the bag, Glover’s face. With Glover’s scowling mug filling the screen like a gargoyle with a grudge, the rats merely fill out the edges of the frame, as though they are the physical manifestation of his rage and his angst, pouring out of his ears.

Willard is Morgan’s remake of a 1971 horror movie. It’s not a great story, by any means, but it has a certain punch to it, like a short story co-authored by Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe. Bruce Davison, the first Willard, played an oppressed employee who used his unique connection with rats to lash out at his abusive employer. Davison appears in the 2003 version too, but only as a smiling portrait in a frame, suggesting that he is Glover’s father.

Willard is a grown man who still lives like an abused child at home, plagued by an ailing mother who constantly assails him with critical remarks and oppressive worrying. A social outcast, haunted, hunched, and harried, Willard takes comfort in the company of the only creature who will take notice of him . . . a white rat named Socrates. This emotional friendship leads Willard into favor with the rest of the rats, a nasty hoard of filthy monsters. Soon, they become his servants. Given such a remarkable resource, what does Willard do? He determines to get even with the world, starting with his abusive employer (R. Lee Ermey).

Willard gains our sympathy because we feel sorry for him in his persecuted state. We understand his frustrations with others. And it is easy to understand why he has grown up uncomfortable around women, even the one who seems interested in connecting with him (Laura Elena Harring).

And yet, the damage Willard has suffered has made him dangerous and demented. Instead of looking for a way out of his distress or noticing the chances for grace and companionship offered to him, he focuses on vicious revenge. As his violence-by-rodent escalates into personal assaults, the movie refuses to glorify his rage, leading us to respond to the attacks with increasing dismay. (There is uncomfortable laughter too; Morgan’s tone remains tongue-in-cheek.) The rats are clearly a symbol of Willard’s low self-image and baser tendencies. We come to hope that he will refrain from abusing his gift for communicating with animals, but as his anger gets the better of him, the film is honest enough to show that such behavior leads only to further chaos. (I imagine this is a theme that audiences will revisit soon when another uniquely gifted individual comes under the influence of reckless anger in The Hulk.)

Thus, Willard ends up as a cautionary fairy tale, a nightmare with a sly grin. I wouldn’t recommend you take the family, as the film is dark and troubling. But if you want a lesson in eccentric acting, or if you are interested in a horror story well told, Willard is a noteworthy effort, a fully realized vision in a season of mediocrity. Thank goodness it doesn’t play to the appetites of today’s audiences.

Director – Glen Morgan
Writer – Glen Morgan, based on a screenplay by Gilbert Ralston
Director of photography – Robert McLachlan
Editor – James Coblentz
Music – Shirley Walker
Production designer – Mark Freeborn
Producer – James Wong and Glen Morgan
New Line Cinema. 105 minutes. Rated PG-13.
STARRING: Crispin Glover (Willard), R. Lee Ermey (Mr. Martin), Laura Elena Harring (Cathryn) and Jackie Burroughs (Mrs. Stiles).

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One Response to “Willard (2003)”

  1. The Looking Closer Film Review Archive « Looking Closer at the Movies Says:

    [...] Rider (2002) What Dreams May Come (1998) What Lies Beneath (2000) The Widow of St. Pierre (2000) Willard (2003) Wings of the Dove, The (1997) Wings of Desire (1987) Wonder Boys [...]

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