There is perhaps no actor in all of celluloid with a stranger face than Crispin Glover, and his latest movie, Willard, showcases that mug in all of its craggy, pointy glory. The ways that face is good for as many chills as it is laughs is about how the movie is itself — endowed with a wicked black streak of humor and a fair share of disturbing, creepy moments.
Willard works because it steadily establishes its bizarre pace instead of shoving it in our face. The ultimate payoff doesn’t quite equal its heady set-up, but the film is still a nasty little good time.
A remake of the 1971 movie, this update casts Glover as the title character, a human doormat who elevates meekness to a whole new level. Willard’s sick mother is overbearing, his boss is a verbally abusive shark and his father’s suicide casts a gloomy pall over every move he makes. It’s no wonder that every word he says sounds like it’s struggling to get out.
When Willard finds rats in the basement of the gloomy house he shares with his mother, he first tries to kill them. But ultimately he befriends them, namely one in particular — a petite albino rat he dubs Socrates for its intelligence. Willard trains them for speed and chewing ferocity, at first to pull pranks but ultimately to let them eat their way to revenge on his enemies.
Willard is the product of Glen Morgan and James Wong, two of the best writers for Fox’s The X-Files who didn’t quite hit the mark with their previous two films, Final Destination and The One. Wong helmed those two, but here Morgan takes his first directorial crack. It seems to have been a wise decision.
From the beginning, Morgan lets the film breathe, showing us there’s clearly something bent, but not MTV-flashy, going on here. It’s filled with fantastic black-comedy moments — Willard’s search for rat poison carried out in complete silence; his mother deciding Willard is an awful name and calling him Clark instead; and, finally, a scene where the rats stalk a cat in way over his head.
Willard also abounds in visual and psychological eerieness. Each time the rats assemble for their next “mission,” it’s a spooky sight. Also, it’s a flinch-worthy moment when one certain rat buys the farm. And it’s oddly unsettling to watch how poorly Willard treats Ben, a larger, brutish rat whom he snubs in favor of Socrates. It’s rather slickly paralleled with Willard’s relationship with his boss (played with vein-popping brio by R. Lee Ermey).
As set up, the showdown between Willard, Ben and Socrates seems like it will be something fierce and fun, but Willard stumbles in the end, faltering to a fairly unsatisfying conclusion.
Glover, though, makes Willard work as well as it does overall. In scenes where he weeps for lost parents, pleads with lawyers and bonds with Socrates, he showcases Willard’s tenderness as well as his oddities and his creepiness. At first glance, most people might turn Willard away, but I’m sure they’d think again if they saw how involving and demented Glover makes it.