"Sure," you're thinking. "So's your old lady." And you should be skeptical. After all, it's even easier now than it was a year and a half ago to detect Sept. 11 shadows creeping through every movie plot (i.e., see the above review of The Hunted). That's partly because we've just had more time to think about it all. But if such readings are by now reflexive, they're also more justifiable. Since most movies take a little over a year to shoot, edit and get to the multiplex, we're now somewhere in the initial wave of films to be made in the wake of Sept. 11, and perhaps to plainly bear its stamp.
The first such film might have been Spike Lee's fine drama 25th Hour, which wove the aftermath of the terrorist attacks into its atmosphere of sadness, regret and suspicion. The original Willard (based on the Stephen Gilbert novel Ratman's Notebooks) was released in 1971, but director Glen Morgan and his screenwriters clearly saw an opportunity. They tell the story of an isolated fellow who recruits some murderous allies of convenience only to abandon them later, and then watches as they turn on their former benefactor.
Morgan tips his allegorical hand only a couple times, really. When Willard (Glover) tries to dispose of rats, he wields Tora Bora brand pesticides (which promise hands-off results); later, the director winkingly hangs on a shot of the number "3-911." And who is that fat black rat who hates it that Willard hates him, and leads the revolt against him? Why, it's Osama Ben Rodent. (But who does that make Socrates, the intelligent little white rat whose death inspires Willard's own rampage? Since he's Willard's "only friend in the world," maybe he's Tony Blair to Glover's W.)
This interpretation only takes you so far. Cringing, pathologically timid Willard, for instance, hardly seems a useful symbol for a country used to throwing its weight around. (His hard-assed boss, a much more typically American type played by R. Lee Ermey, is Willard's nemesis.) In fact, it's arguable that current events are less important to this Willard than is Psycho, whose influence includes Morgan's penchant for overhead camera angles.
And then there's Glover, he of the nose with the steep flat flanks and the audaciously flaring tip. Oh lordy, what a show our Crispin provides as the cornered Willard. He screams, he weeps. He glares through bright baleful irises that search the unpopulated edges of the room. Glover can't change the fact that Willard is one part horror movie that's not scary, and one part comedy that's only occasionally funny. He can't do much to improve a thin if puckish geopolitical allegory. But he does provide the sort of weirdly committed, sui generis performance usually restricted to cult films, and that's got to be worth something. * *