Willard (2003)

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Ben is a rat. A smart rat, but a rat nonetheless. Socrates is also a rat; he’s as smart as Ben but more loveable. Willard, though, is a pathetic loser. A friendless nobody who’s under the thumb of his skeletal mother.

What’s clear from the beginning of Willard is that the two rats who vie for the affection of their master are the two sides of his tortured personality. Socrates, white and beautiful, is his good side, the side that is tender and loving and sweet. Ben, though, dark and brooding and ugly, is his bad side, the side that is angry and vengeful and that hates the world. So the rat who outlasts the other is the one that will take possession of this greasy weirdo’s soul.

One of the most eyebrow-raising moments in the film is when Willard tells Socrates that he hates everyone in the world except him and that they should go to bed. Go to bed? Yes, he says it tenderly. He says it seductively. He says it like they’re going to, well, fuck. Er. Um. Right. (But is that even possible? Maybe if one has the most micro of micro penises. Otherwise you’d probably just end up turning your beloved rodent inside out.)

However, a tender scene turns bad when the dastardly Ben, who has previously been told that he’s not allowed to leave the cellar, crawls into the bed perhaps seeking a ménage a trois. He wants part of the action, the little perv. But Willard isn’t having it. He wants no part of Ben. His heart belongs to Socrates.

But what could have screwed Willard up so badly that he has to sleep with rodents in order to feel some sort of contentment? Well, I guess a batshit crazy mother would do that to you. Especially one that wants to rename you Clark because Willard is a cissy name and one that wants to check your turds when you tell her you’re having bowel issues. How is a young man meant to get a girl when that kind of pussy kryptonite is walking around? No wonder Willard chooses rats.

But there’s also Willard’s boss. The second you see him and find out that he’s played by Lee Ermey you know he’s going to be a colossal bastard. And he lives up to expectations. He shouts at Willard, he bullies him, he takes his wages and basically does anything he can to make his life a living hell. Yet another reason to seek refuge in the tickly caress of a rat’s vivacious whiskers.

Another eyebrow-raising moment is when Willard is training his rat army. He keeps on repeating the phrase ‘tear it’. And as he says it, he becomes more and more impassioned. It’s like he’s getting aroused. Maybe he’s thinking about tearing more than just paper. But I do love some of the details in the rat training sequence. I mean, there’s even a little rat obstacle course. How sweet. But it’s also in this sequence that we first meet Ben. But he doesn’t really take part in the training because a) he’s a fat bastard and b) he’s a bit above himself. In fact, he’s a bit of a prick is Ben. He’s always lurking in the corner like a right creepy bastard. Plus he has a habit of always turning up no matter how hard you try and get rid of him. Trying to get rid of Ben is like trying to escape a fart in a crowded lift.

Then there’s the fact that Ben’s borderline psychotic. In one of the film’s best scenes, a cat is given to Willard and its left alone in his creepy house with all of his rats. Under Ben’s command, the rats pursue the feline. And then after finding higher ground, and apparently escaping the filthy pests, Ben attacks and the cat is knocked to the ground and consumed by Ben’s underlings. Oh, and to make it even better, the scene is scored to the Jackson 5's song ‘Ben’ from the awesomely titled sequel to the original Willard, Ben. The juxtaposition of violence with a tender love song dedicated to vermin is exquisite.

But although all of this violence is committed by Ben in order to get Willard to love him, his feelings are never returned. Indeed, late in the film, Willard even shouts that he hates Ben and that he loves Socrates. And this is after Willard tries to abandon Ben. He gets the large rat to kill his boss and then says goodbye to him. He’s trying to escape the darkness and reclaim the light. But it’s too late. He’s become what he loathes. He’s become Ben.

And just compare Ben to Socrates. There’s a scene where Willard is going through his deceased father’s possessions (in a nice little nod to the original film, Willard’s dead father has the image of Bruce Davison, the actor who originally played Willard). He takes a knife and is contemplating killing himself. But then Socrates stops him. Meanwhile Ben watches from above. He wouldn’t stop Willard, the bastard.

But Crispin Glover is wonderfully cast in the film. He’s the consummate weirdo and fits the part exceptionally well. And his commitment to the role is impressive. There’s an amusing scene where he’s at his mother’s funeral and he shows her his only friend, the rat Socrates. The rat climbs over mum’s face and then Glover begins bawling, a massive line of snot dangling from his nose. And then later on in the scene, when he finds out he’s in debt and may lose his house, he just starts ranting and screaming. It’s kind of reminiscent of his appearance on Letterman. And he also has a nice singing voice. ‘Ben’ isn’t quite ‘Clowny Clown Clown’, but it provides an ironic counterpoint to Willard’s mistaken assertion that his association with Ben is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. No, it’s the beginning of your demise. Ben will be the end of you.

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