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Lynn Ramsay's ratcatcher follows in the tradition of dark films on poverty and desperation in the UK made by directors like Ken Loach and Mike Leigh (actors Tim Roth and Gary Oldman even tackled the vibe in their directorial debuts). Glasgow, portrayed by Ramsay during a horrendous garbage collectors strike, is a festering, dank place with little hope. The film is told mostly through the eyes of young James. A tragedy that takes place in the film's opening minutes puts James in a delicate position. He blames himself and spends much of the film trying to do good in small ways. Ramsay has the sense to play this as subtle as can be and allows James (played with soulful solitude by William Eadie) to appear still, observing the characters around him. All of the film's characters are in some sort of inner-pain, even if they don't know it. Margaret Anne, a girl James grows close to, is constantly tormented by bullies but shows James a trusting, intimate side. Kenny keeps little pets and is a proud member of the RSPCA but is also barely grasping reality. No one even comments on the growing piles of bursting trash bags that fill the streets. In one shot James' little sister sits on a pile of trash like it's a beanbag chair.
It's to Ramsay's credit that her photographer's eye can make these dreary proceedings compelling. The film is light on plot, which is fine, but this material has been covered before. She had a knack, however, for composing her shots in dynamic, engaging ways and each scene is beautiful for the way it incorporates the decay. There is a sense that the rubble has penetrated not only the lives of the characters but their souls as well. One ongoing thread in the film is the hope (futile, the viewer has to sense) that James' family will be selected to received a government subsidized home in the suburbs. His parents (excellently played by Tommy Flanagan and Mandy Matthews) are neither saints nor monsters. They are unhappy, flawed human beings with one sliver of hope remaining. The idea of moving to a new house is like a dream and in one beautiful sequence James gets to act out this desire. He rides a bus to the outskirts of town and discovers a cluster of unfinished houses surreally situated in the middle of a wheat field. As he wanders and plays around the houses the film opens up both visually and emotionally. James' return to his drab home feels like a real come-down.
Ramsay builds her film out of surprising little details. One particularly intimate scene is based around the hunt for head lice. A sudden bit of violence directed towards one of the main characters begins with a little girl asking the question "Mister, would you hold my cat while I go to the ice cream truck?" In one of the most fanciful moments in the film a mouse is seen flying through space, tail tied to a balloon. This is a moment that some might argue doesn't work, considering that the film doesn't really contain much else in the way of fantasy (the characters' dreams are entirely grounded in reality). Still, there is so little light in the lives of the people in the film that this curious bit of fantasy serves to remind the audience just how tied to the dirty ground the characters really are.
The anamorphic widescreen video is quite nice. The compression looks clean and the subtle use of color in the cinematography has been handled carefully. Ramsay's cinematography is really extraordinary, with shots pulling together architectural, natural, practical and human elements in ways that create striking images.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 surround audio is fine. Much of the film is very quiet and the accents are occasionally tough but it's never unclear. There is an English subtitle track.
Criterion's disc includes a lengthy interview with Lynne Ramsay on the film and her experiences making it. While there isn't a commentary track per se, the interview covers much ground. Also included are three short films that Ramsey made before her feature. They show her to be a filmmaker developing a consistent style.
ratcatcher has rich performances and atmosphere. Although it treads familiar emotional ground there is a sense of longing and a sadness that should affect most audiences.