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RATCATCHER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews, William Eadie, Michelle Stewart, Lynne Ramsay Jr., Leanne Mullen, John Miller
Director:  Lynne Ramsay
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  94 Minutes
Release Date:  September 10, 2002

“Where are you going?”

“Nowhere.”

Film ****

Adolescence has always seemed to be a subject of loving interest for filmmakers, all the way from the potent Rebel Without a Cause and The 400 Blows to the more recent offerings:  the bleak Kids, the uncompromising Welcome to the Dollhouse, the lilting George Washington…now, into that array of unique visions comes Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, a picture that captures a specific time and place through the eyes of a child, and sadly shows that childhood isn’t always the best years of life.

The story takes place in Glasgow around 1973, in the midst of a nine week long garbage strike.  The smell and the sight of trash is inescapable, as the already run down section of the city is becoming less and less hospitable to humans, but more and more so for rats and other vermin.  Our opening shot is of a boy wrapping himself in a shear curtain, as though IT were a shroud or HE were a ghost.  Within a few minutes time, he will be.

The death of that boy, though nothing more than a tragic accident, weighs heavily on the mind of our young protagonist, James (a remarkable juvenile performance by William Eadie).  James is about 12, with big ears and staring eyes that suggest he doesn’t miss much in his world.  He lives in a kind of project with his alcoholic father (Flanagan), his weary mother (Matthews), his older sister Ellen (Stewart) and younger sister Anne Marie (Ramsay Jr.). 

The world he’s growing up in doesn’t seem like much of a place for children.  The physical landscape is horrid enough with the garbage piling up and a filthy canal nearby that just seems to be waiting for unsuspecting children to drown.  But the emotional landscape isn’t much brighter.  He and his family and friends seem to exist in a moral void…not that they’re bad people; simply that there seems to be nothing to serve as a compass for them:  no hopes, no dreams, no ambitions, and no purpose.  These are characters who suffer, and compensate for the pain by sleepwalking through their lives.

There is not much plot to describe…the central theme of the film is the desire to escape.  James has it, but his wishes don’t seem to have much of a foundation.  He looks for tenderness where he can find it.  He takes solace in the arms of young Margaret Anne (Mullen), a slightly older girl with self esteem so low that she pretty much lets all the boys in the neighborhood have their way with her.  He finds little comfort in his friend Kenny (Miller), a slow boy with a love for all animals, including pests.  These supporting characters provide the film with two of its most reassuring moments, as James re-enacts his mother’s tender attention to his lousy hair with Margaret Anne in a bathtub, and Kenny tries to send his pet mouse to the moon—the latter actually disguising unintentional cruelty with an amusing fantasy about our celestial neighborhood becoming a kind of Garden of Eden for rodents.

But the film’s most striking sequence is when James boards a bus to nowhere, and simply gets off when told to as the driver reaches the end of his line.  Standing there incomplete is James’ dream house.  It’s backyard is a rich golden field that he loses himself in for a few moments…a stark contrast to the garbage ridden world of his reality.  His dream is simple and modest, yet ultimately, unattainable, as suggested by a later return sequence.

The ending of the film may be open to interpretation, but I believe that given the nature of what came before, there is only one answer.  Much like Sam in Brazil, James is a character that can’t possibly fit into the world that was presented to him, and he manages in his own way to triumph over it.  But at a price.

Lynne Ramsay is a remarkable craftswoman, and this, her debut feature, is a haunting, unforgettable master work.  Her frames are filled with imagery and symbolism, and she brings them across in such a way that they don’t always call attention to themselves, but simply settle in as smaller pieces of a larger whole.  She shows us pictures that are sometimes repulsive, yet impossible to look away from because of the hypnotic quality of the images.  She paints a bleak portrait with simple strokes because she never loses sight of the humanity within them.

Just consider long shots of James running, running, and running that will remind you of the finale of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows.  In James’ world, there’s not enough room to run from what you want to escape, and too much distance to run to what you want to escape to.

NOTE:  Amusingly enough, the disc defaults with the subtitles on…and you really need them.  The thick Scottish accents and frequent colloquial expressions make this an impossible picture to follow otherwise!

Video ****

This is a superb anamorphic offering from Criterion.  Don’t let the modesty of the film’s construction mislead you; this is a picture built on simple but potent imagery, and it all comes across beautifully on DVD.  Colors are well rendered and rich in their own way, though purposely not as vibrant as some movies.  Detail level is remarkable throughout, with sharp, crisp images from front to back, particularly noteworthy in several deep-focus shots that look out from high windows down to the world below.  I noticed no grain, compression, or anything to interfere with the quality of the visuals…highest marks.

Audio ***

The Dolby Surround track is mostly noteworthy for the music by Rachel Portman, which is rich and tasteful.  One particular tune led by an acoustic guitar sounded remarkable, as the 2 channel surround track opened it up for an ambient listening experience.  Most of the other highlights are the simple sounds of the streets; there’s always something happening to make a noise and enhance the realism of the experience.  A solid effort.

Features ***

Perhaps the best extras on the disc are Lynne Ramsay’s three award winning short films, Small Deaths, Kill the Day, and Gasman.  Each of these films explores similar themes to those expounded upon in Ratcatcher, and demonstrate a talented artist coming into her own.  Ramsey also provides some insights in a 20 minute or so interview segment created for this disc, as she talks about her beginnings in film school to the arrival of her first foray into features.  There is also a stills gallery and an original trailer.

Summary:

When I reviewed Criterion’s George Washington and gave it highest marks, I received a friendly email from a colleague who respectfully disagreed with my thoughts on the film, and we discussed our points of view professionally and courteously, but without changing each other’s minds.  Ratcatcher might fall into a similar category.  This isn’t a film that’s going to please everyone, especially those who like movies with clearly marked roadmaps taking the audience from point A to B systematically and uneventfully.  This is a picture for those who don’t mind occasionally surrendering to an artist’s vision, succumbing to the power of ideas and emotions instead of plot and conflict.  I think it’s one of the most impressive feature debuts I’ve had the pleasure to see, and on that basis, I recommend it without reservation.