14 March 2003
Tear it up
so happy that I be a man,
Cause I got the whole world in my hands.
I got the whole world in my hands.
I'ma happy that I be a man.
--Crispin Hellion Glover, "Auto-Manipulator"
Devised by Glen
Morgan and James Wong, the team responsible for (the good seasons
of) The X-Files and Final Destination, the Willard
remake is remarkably worthy. In fact, it has some decided advantages
over the 1971 original, not least being that Crispin Glover not only
plays the title character, but also sings the closing credits
version of "Ben." It's hard to imagine a more sinister, more perfect
interpretation of this most uncanny of tunes.
Glover has long
been a culty favorite, notorious for his consistently startling
turns in River's Edge (with the beetle), Wild at Heart
(Cousin Dell, meticulously placing roaches in his briefs), Like
Mike (the dreadful orphanage manager) Charlie's Angels
(the Thin Man), and of course, the first Back to the Future's
George McFly (who is especially startling if you consider that he
somehow produced the relentlessly rational Marty). As well, back in
1989, Crispin Glover released a CD called The Big Problem [does
not equal] The Solution. The Solution = Let It Be. The entire
album is pretty near priceless, but it did boast peculiar
highlights, including his cover of "These Boots Are Made for
Walking" and his own concoction, "Auto-Manipulator." Glover
regularly stands apart from his fellow oddballs, even when
surrounded by weirdos. No one can out-weird him.
As the titular
lifelong loser in Willard, Glover takes up this mantle once
again. As many have observed of the Bates house, he is the film's
best special effect. (Though, truth be told, he gets considerable
help from the always courageous Jackie Burroughs, as Willard's
mother, Henrietta.) Frustrated by his lack of intercourse, Willard
Stiles is moping about when the bedridden Henrietta announces that
she's heard rats in the basement of their operatically dilapidated
home. Dutifully he heads downstairs, where, as he teeters on the
wooden stairway, the fuse blows when he flips the light switch.
Seeking luminescence, he comes on a flashlight, which he shines into
the camera, filtered light-effect and high-beam right in your eyes.
Hoorah, the film proclaims one of its several X-Files-ish
references (another being a cat named Scully).
effort toward solving the problem is to head to the local mega-mart,
so fluorescently and muzak-ically horrific that it seems a most
fiendishly imagined circle of hell. Standing in the rat-poison
aisle, he peruses the labels, landing on the one that looks most
effective: Mouse Prufe II. When he goes to pick it off the
shelf, however, he discovers that it is sold out. And so he returns
home, a bag full of the inferior brand in tow. His defeat is
redoubled when his efforts to kill the rats fail, miserably.
But if his
efforts didn't fail, he wouldn't have the chance to meet the white
rat he christens Socrates, who leads his fellows to do whatever
Willard says ("Tear it up"), shares his bed ("I'll never leave you,
ever"), nibbles away at the Numm Nuts Willard offers, and tags along
with him to work, where he waits quietly in the desk drawer until
it's time to trudge on home, metaphorical tail between his legs.
Work is, in a
word, gruesome. At the grim offices of Martin-Stiles Manufacturing,
where it's not clear what they manufacture; it's one of those
Brazil-style workplaces, where the elevator cage is huge and
rattly, the hallways are sickly green, and the desks are cluttered
with papers, inboxes, and computer monitors. Willard's boss, Frank
Martin (R. Lee Ermey), is monstrous: sweaty-faced, loud, and
determined to make Willard's life unpleasant. The former partner of
Willard's dad ("remembered" here in portraits and photos of the
original Willard, Bruce Davison), Martin spends most of his time
harassing his employees and cruising the feeblest of internet porn
sites. Willard has a special place in his hard heart, embodying
whatever might be left of his guilt, for Mr. Stiles' suicide and
Mrs.'s terminal frailty.
Much as Ermey
livens up the proceedings (and brings to bear his old drill sergeant
affect on the cringing Willard), the film runs through its single
idea (Willard loves his rats) pretty quickly. Though Willard shares
a mutual, strange affection with Cathryn (Laura Elena Harring, whose
experience on Mulholland Drive may have primed her to work
with fellow Lynch veteran Glover), he probably believes, as he tells
Socrates repeatedly, that he has nothing to live for beyond his new
furry friend. And, as no intrahuman relationship develops beyond the
fleeting, arresting moment -- Cathryn's hand caressing Willard's
face, his eyes red-brimming with tears -- the film is rather stuck
with its focus on Willard and the rats.
And there are
lots of them -- some 550 live rats, along with CGI and animatronic
creatures. The most disquieting is Big Ben (about whom Michael
Jackson is singing, as 1972's Ben plays on television as
melodically creepazoid counterpoint to an especially nasty
rat-stalking and assaulting scene). This mammoth rat, brown and
aggressive, nosy and abnormally expressive, is the opposite of the
cutesy white-mousey Socrates. What's more, Ben is increasingly
jealous of Socrates' special treatment, and begins to take matters
into his own teeth.
At this point
it's clear that Willard is afraid of Ben's strength, his
relentlessness, his will to survive, and his seeming freedom of
movement and appropriation: "You can go anywhere," he wails. "I have
nowhere." Cowering in the kitchen corner, Willard suddenly sees
himself another way: a poor white kid in a decrepit building,
underprivileged, afraid, and hopeless.
R. Lee Ermey
Laura Elena Harring
PG-13 - Parents
Some material may
be inappropriate for
children under 13.