The work of an experimental independent Scottish filmmaker, Ratcatcher is surprising for what it is not: there's no direct condemnation of public policy, or assignment of responsibility on easy liberal targets. The socialist structure is not to blame, as the same slums exist in capitalist countries. The only hope we see comes from the concerned authorities who are trying to relocate James' family into better housing.
Ratcatcher accepts the living conditions as a given, and everything naturally flows from there. In the grim circumstances, Ma (Mandy Matthews) has a tough time bringing any kind of happiness into the family. Da (Tommy Flanagan) is a hardworking sort, who from the scars on his face, clearly has had some rough times himself. He eases his pain with frequent trips out to drink, which also do the family no good. Dad sees James's introversion as hostility, and he dotes on his girls instead. But we get the feeling that the girls are no less safe in this environment than James is. If anyone goes to school, there's no sign of it - perhaps these are vacation weeks, but there's no hint of anything educational happening at all.
Children seem to be the first to suffer under poverty. The stagnant canals around the project regularly claim victims, and prowling hoods victimize anyone in sight. James' girlfriend is molested and raped by the boys on a regular basis, but there's no 'inherent nobility' in James that demands he come to her rescue. It's as if he's in constant shock from living in his environment, exacerbated by his personal guilt over the drowning of his pal during some roughhouse.
Ratcatcher captures the awful misery of poverty in its petty details. There's a strange repetition of misery being associated with footware. A kid drowns, perhaps dragged down by the new boots that his mom has strived so hard to get him. James inherits the dead boy's shoes, and is beaten for not being grateful. His father gets him a pair of soccer shoes, and his lack of enthusiasm also brands him as worthless.
Lynne Ramsay's trump card is her handling of actors, especially the kids who seem 100% authentic. There's some pretty extreme behavior involved, and even when James climbs into a bathtub with his girl (neither are anywhere near 18) it seems natural, unforced, and almost pre-sexually innocent. Ramsay also is evenhanded with the adults. Mom's singlehanded attempt to enliven a party by getting the kids to dance is pathetic, but works to a degree. When Dad comes home, drunk and bleeding, the faces of his girls show a despair that's all the more terrible because there's nothing special about it - it's business as usual. And Dad is no villain, but honestly trying to do his best.
Ratcatcher has a wee fantasy element around James' vague ideas of escape. He imagines his pal's mouse friend taking a freedom ride to the moon, its tail tied to a balloon. He takes a bus out of town to play in a new housing development, the kind his family may never qualify to occupy. Originally a still photographer, the director imbues her economical setups with a visual clarity that keeps the images from lapsing into simple prettiness.
In terms of other pictures, Ratcatcher brings to mind elements of Los Olvidados, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and even The River's Edge. It's not that goodness is crushed by social evil, as in the Buñuel film. Rather, goodness has no opportunity to develop. The molested girl can't see without her glasses, which the toughs have tossed into the canal. James' better side is so repressed, he doesn't even think to retrieve them for her. When he attempts to do so later, he gives up without so much as a shrug of defeat.
Ratcatcher also seems like an updating of James Joyce's short stories about the petty meanness of poverty; several scenes have the sickly feeling of hopelessness, as good intentions and honest feelings are relentlessly hammered down by the slum environment. It's an unsentimental, painful, but honest portrait of people who are worthy of our interest and concern.
Criterion's DVD of Ratcatcher is beautifully transferred, and comes with a battery of extras that present director Lynne Ramsay's background and ideas in rich detail. There's a video interview, and three previous short films that show the development of her talent for intriguing character study. She appears to have used her daughter Lynne in all of her films, to remarkably good effect. There are also a stills gallery, a trailer, and the rest of the usual Criterion trimmings. All in all, with this single disc, one feels that one's been given a thorough introduction to a relatively obscure talent with a unique filmmaking vision.
The Scottish accents are very forbidding, making the English subtitles a must to understand what's being said. I don't think I would have understood twenty words in Ratcatcher in an unsubtitled theatrical screening.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,