Willard (March 9/03)
The best thing about Willard is the inspired casting of Crispin Glover as the titular character. Here's a guy that's successfully made a career out of playing weirdos and social misfits (most likely because, in real life, he actually is a weirdo and social misfit), playing someone who has the ability to communicate with rodents. It's certainly the most obviously effective thing about Willard, but the film does have a few other tricks up its sleeve.
Willard Stiles (Glover) hasn't got a whole lot going for him; he still lives at home with his domineering mother, his boss hates him, and he's deathly afraid to talk to women. But after he saves a small white rat from certain doom and names it Socrates, he finds that he finally has a friend. His friendship with Socrates is just the beginning, though, as Willard soon discovers that he has the ability to communicate with the hundreds of rats that now live in his basement. In one of the best sequences in the film, Willard trains the rats to respond to his commands - military style. With the rats under his control, Willard's self-confidence jumps up 100% but, as he mentions later on in the movie, "all good things must come to an end."
Willard marks the directorial debut of Glen Morgan, best known for his work on The X-Files with partner James Wong (who's a producer here), and he's clearly been influenced by Tim Burton. Right from the opening credits (which features a darkly amusing animated segment set to Shirley Walker's Danny Elfman-esque score), it's obvious that Morgan's going for a gothic vibe - the sort of look that Burton used to excel at (before he started making movies like Planet of the Apes). If nothing else, the film is a wonder just to look at; Willard's turn-of-the-century house is a marvel of production design (credit Mark Freeborn for that) and his place of employment looks as though it belongs in the '70s (the computers are the only 21st century giveaway).
And then, of course, there's Glover. On the page, Willard's hardly the sort of character that's designed to elicit sympathy from the audience; this is a guy that's quiet and withdrawn, and whose only friend is in the form of a rat. But Glover does a better-than-expected job of turning the character into more than just a morose outcast. By the time the end rolls around, Willard's become someone that we do feel a certain amount of pity for - due in no small part to Glover's performance, which is more than just an assemblage of quirky mannerisms. The supporting cast is just as effective, particularly R. Lee Ermey as Willard's tyrannical boss. Though it would've been easy for him to fall back on the drill sergeant persona he excels at, Ermey delivers a surprisingly effective performance that isn't just a variation on his Full Metal Jacket character.
But as good as the actors are and as astounding as the set design is, Willard nevertheless runs out of steam towards the end. The film is essentially plotless; Willard learns how to control a large group of rats and let's watch what happens now. The primary thrust of the film - Willard's revenge on his domineering boss - is resolved about an hour in, leaving us with an antsy desire to see the movie end. Still, up to that point, Willard is quite entertaining and certainly heralds the arrival of a promising new filmmaker.