Review by Michael Jacobson
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
Features: See Review
Length: 94 Minutes
Release Date: September 10, 2002
are you going?”
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.
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.
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.).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.