Willard has become known as the movie about rats, but in actuality, as the title suggests, it’s the story about Willard. Director Daniel Mann and screenwriter Gilbert Ralston paint a complicated picture of a socially awkward man (Bruce Davison) struggling to make ends meet in his life, and it just so happens that he befriends a bunch of rats in the process of figuring out the direction he wants his life to go in. While Willard does spend a lot of time with its rats – primarily the white-furred Socrates and the black Ben – the majority of the film focuses on Willard’s frustration with life, his increasingly manipulative boss Mr. Martin (Ernest Borgnine), and a potential love interest with his temp co-worker Joan (Sondra Locke). But the real draw of the film is its presentation of Willard as something of an unreliable protagonist, a man who eventually has to resort to burglary and violence to restart his life.
Much of Willard‘s first half is a character study. Davison’s Willard is a sheepish young fellow whose ailing mother (Elsa Lanchester) uses up most of his time at home, and his job working for his own father’s company is compromised by Mr. Martin’s tendency to overwork and embarrass him. In short, Mann’s direction makes it clear that Willard has nothing for himself until he finds a group of rats in his backyard, smart creatures to whom he eventually teaches verbal commands.
Once Willard’s mother dies, he begins an obsession – he allows all of them (and there’s a lot) to move into the house’s cellar, where they inevitably creep up into other spaces of the house. But Socrates and Ben are the two that Ben finds solace in the most, and he even brings them to work with him as a sort of comfort when his job becomes stressful.
While the opening 45 minutes are somewhat slow, Ralston’s script does some important work. For one, it portrays a rather realistic depiction of a guy who has sustained a lot of mental and emotional grief in his life, forced to adapt to that situation by becoming attached to some pet rats. Willard’s obsession with rats isn’t that offbeat, either; it’s clear he’s treating them like unconventional pets, and the burgeoning rat population is more of an accident than anything else.
Ralston also allows the viewer to question Willard and his judgment, though, because on more than one occasion the film presents a protagonist whose actions tend to lead to his harassment at the workplace. While Mr. Martin is a prick, he’s also not wrong when he scolds Willard for being 40 minutes late to his job or takes him to task for not having his work done. Mann leaves it up to the viewer to decide whether Willard deserves some of his reprimands, never clarifying Willard’s guilt or innocence.
As the film progresses, Willard also makes it harder for the audience to condone his actions despite some obvious inner turmoil. When Willard learns of a large sum of money a client takes home, he uses his rats to break into the house and steal it to pay for his taxes; while it’s not entirely his fault he has no money, he also refuses to sell the house and make a sum of money, which doesn’t exactly justify his burglary. He leaves a pet cat from his temp co-worker Joan with a stranger rather than simply making up an excuse about a dislike of cats, and he proceeds to lie to Joan the entire time while also wooing her. Willard is a troubled person, but he’s also not entirely innocent.
That leads to the moralistic conclusion of the film, which brings all of Willard‘s pieces together in disturbing fashion. There are only two truly violent sequences in the entire film: one where Mr. Martin’s attacked by Ben and throws himself out a window, and the film’s final scene when Willard is eaten by his own pet rats in an act of vengeance after he attempts to kill them. While Mann does evoke some tension from these scenes, the more defining emotion surrounding Willard is sadness. Willard nearly has his life together towards the end of the film, but he’s never allowed to be happy for more than a moment; his rat project, which gave him some joy, eventually turns on him when he refuses to accept himself. Willard is a deep character study of an awkward individual, and despite a jaunty soundtrack score and a fair bit of humor, it’s often a bleak experience.
While many viewers will lose patience with Willard‘s initially slow pacing, I encourage them to stick with it until the film’s climax. The horror occurs not because of killer rats – although it is a fantastic moment – but because of the dramatic highs and lows of Willard’s life, and ultimately Mann (along with a solid performance from Davison) directs a successful film about an odd, eccentric rat-loving guy.
Click next for the Blu-Ray review.