Man’s Pest Friend


One might idly think of the 1970s as a more hospitable era for movies about homicidal rats, but here we have Willard, a devilish, high-time remake of the notorious and clumsy 1971 marketing triumph, and the most captivating Hollywood movie released this quarter. No less reflexive than a Tim Burton phantasma or a Joe Dante Petite Guignol (for starters, the likeness of today’s Bruce Davison—the original “ratman”—is used for the portrait of the hero’s dead father), Glen Morgan’s film has a confident bead on what’s funny about our generic dislike for fat, bewhiskered über-mice the size of men’s shoes gnawing through the intimate spaces of our lives. His calm focus on the viewer’s own rat dread precludes actorly histrionics; the film’s tour de force suspense sequence—a stunned tabby’s odyssey through an old house completely overrun with hostile rats, scored to Michael Jackson’s vermin-ballad “Ben”—involves no humans at all.

Still, Willard‘s social-scape is energetically conceived as well, an ultra-musty precinct of small-town industrial rust and family-death-grip neuroticism, all designed as uncomfortable comedy. Willard’s decaying Victorian home is a distinctively gray garden, crammed with Batesian stuffed birds and soiled wallpaper, just as his warehouse office walls look as if they’re painted with cheese mold. Typecast as the titular mega-misfit, Crispin Glover (resembling a refugee from Split Enz) is called upon only to seethe and shudder orgasmically as Willard goes from training his swarm to attack car tires and people (“Let’s go to bed,” he whispers to his pet rat Socrates after a satisfying coup) to, a few calamities later, trying to short-circuit the megalomanic power trip of king rat Ben. Much more cartoonishly horrifying is Jackie Burroughs as the shrieking mother, who is no fleshier or better preserved than the shell of Norman Bates’s own, and whose presence evokes an ingrown domestic inferno that makes cultivating voracious rodents seem a sensible life choice. (“Is it loose or hard?” she wails—meaning Willard’s reputed stool—as he hides in the bathroom to surreptitiously rip a rat free of glue paper.)

It’s also the best movie about the qualm of basements since Svankmajer’s short Down to the Cellar (which is, I think, explicitly homaged), even though, since rats cannot develop their characters, Morgan’s movie is thick with longueurs. Never mind—in a culture clogged with appropriated effluvia and remake cop-outs, Willard is wittier and nastier than we deserve.

On the other foot, William Friedkin’s The Hunted is essentially a reheating of 1982’s First Blood—a psychologically wounded warrior-vet pits himself against civilized America—but the fallout this time is simultaneously more ruthless, less emotional, and duller. As the senior combat trainer/human-tracker on the case of a few butchered hunters in the Oregon woods, Tommy Lee Jones talks to animals and sniffs moss; Benicio del Toro, as the razor-sharp human weapon who can’t stop killing, begins as an animal rights Luddite but then becomes merely another savvy fugitive. Friedkin orchestrates as much thrilling chaos as he can (except when both men stop in mid-chase to make stone knives), but Jones’s clipped-sarcastic line readings are the film’s only convincingly human virtue. The decidedly anti-telegenic problem of what we’re supposed to do with an ethically spayed, pre-programmed killing class once we’ve created it is lightly posed. In the end, the movie’s implied Leatherstocking superiority of men who can efficiently gut other men with a handmade blade is more than a little idiotic.

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