Willard is not what people seem to expect. It is a remake yes, but public perception seems to be that it has been remade into a modern day horror feast, when this Willard is nothing of the sort.
Unsurprisingly, the most brilliant thing about Willard is the casting of Crispin Glover in the lead. Having made a career out of portraying social outcasts and oddball weirdoes to perfection, Crispin is the ideal choice for playing a local misfit who can talk to rats. In particular, he plays Willard Stiles, lonely, sheltered, oddball whose life exists only on the successes of others. With his father's suicide 8 years earlier, Willard cares for his aged and disturbingly decrepit mother all alone in a massive aging house, ripped straight from the uber-cool pages of "Creepy Mansion Monthly".
The sheer loneliness of Willard's existence and his total inability to cope with normal social life is the core of this rat-infested film. Beginning with a black screen and his mother screeching the words "Willard, there are rats in the basement!” the culmination of Willard's loneliness approaches as the film begins with Willard's first descent into the basement.
The world outside Willard's house is a kaleidoscope of differences and changes. When he goes to the grocery store to find something to handle his rat problem, he's totally unable to choose a rat-killing product in the face of so many choices. Crispin's character is silent, seemingly dead inside, but beneath the surface of humility and shame lurks incredible pain and suffering fighting to find a way out from the lonely blanket in which Willard has surrounded himself. Instead of changing that, he suffers, oh how he suffers, alone and silent, his sweet despair conveyed brilliantly by what is really almost entirely wordless acting from Crispin, who when he does speak, speaks barely above a quiet whisper, struggling to express himself to those around.
It is a small white rat, who for the first time breaks into that shield with which Willard surrounds himself. Saving the rodent from a trap, he dubs him Socrates and begins to imbue to the animal intelligence, wisdom, love, and feelings that no normal person could ever understand. Socrates is Willard's first and only friend, and the amazing tenderness and delicacy with which Crispin treats this one small rat is beyond most actors’ ability to comprehend.
But this movie is a plutonic love triangle of sorts and as Crispin begins to use Socrates to teach the other rats in his house more stream to him. It is then that he encounters Ben. Ben is the biggest, scariest sewer rat you've ever seen with an eagerness to please Willard all his own. Seriously, he's huge. He's bigger than a small dog. He's heavy, you here him thud when he jumps. Not to the point he ever looks like he is anything other than an honest to god rat, but just the biggest freaking real rat you've ever seen. In his own way he wants to be Socrates and is desperate for Willard's attention. But Willard cares only for Socrates, and uses the other obedient rats to his own ends to right the wrongs that have been accosted upon him by an overly cruel and heartless world. I'm still in awe with the way first time director Glen Morgan manages to make these rats come so ALIVE without resorting to talking and dancing or cheap cgi. Ben is the sort of rat that speaks from his eyes and Socrates is a creature for which you can really nearly understand Willard's undying love. I love the way Crispin looks up and Ben is always there, watching, waiting, mischievous, and maybe a little bit evil. I'm in awe of the way these animals are trained to respond to Crispin and the amazing way in which he responds to them.
This isn't a scare fest; this isn't some crazy slasher, though thousands of rats likely could creep out even the biggest rat lover. Willard is an atmospheric trip into the world of the weird and the outlandish. More "Twighlight Zone" than terrifier, the film pushes along in a quietly outlandish journey into the bizarre that leaves you delving deeper for more. This is a beautifully produced film, the kind of thing you'd expect from Tim Burton, from the love fest stop motion animation credits (which we need to see more of!) to the foggy stylized sets, beautiful deep shadows, and Willard's disturbed old house.
Astounding acting, superb direction and set design still don't mean this story is necessarily for everyone. Obviously, if you have a fear of rats stay away. But Willard is primarily a movie about seeing beauty in the weird, sweetness in the disturbed. It is that beauty that Glover brings out so clearly in a character that without his gentle hand we could have otherwise easily ended up hating. Obviously it is a little campy and for some that can at times that can be annoying. Yet I for one am in love with the understated result achieved through a trip into the far out.
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