Lynne Ramsay’s debut feature film is a wrenching contrast of elegant film-making with the bleakest of subject matter in unrelievedly grim surroundings. In the slums of Glasgow, by a fetid, polluted canal, 12 year old James Gillespie lives with his parents and his two sisters. As if the squalor was not already sufficient, a strike of the garbage collectors has left the streets heaped with growing piles of stinking trash, infested with rats.
While James and his friend Ryan are engaged in boyish roughhousing, Ryan accidentally drowns in the canal. Believing that they were unobserved, and fearful of being implicated, James keeps the incident a secret. Whether that secret will be uncovered is just one underlying source of the tension that Ratcatcher generates in a gradually developed crescendo of despair.
James’ father is a drunk whose face is crisscrossed with scars that look like they might have originated in a knife fight. In one scene, returning from a bender, he slaps his wife; by then the viewer is so encapsulated within James’ viewpoint that the shock of the blow reverberates with emotional intensity. But Ramsay doesn’t undermine her characterizations with black-and-white simplifications: another scene shows Ma and Da in a lingering, slow dance, holding each other closely.
The hope of the family is to escape to a new home in public housing. When social workers arrive for an unscheduled check of the family’s living conditions, finding the flat in a mess and Da asleep in the middle of the afternoon, Da blames James for destroying their chances by letting them in. Incident by incident, hopes are raised and hopes are crushed and guilt weighs ever more heavily. When Da rescues a neighbor boy floundering in the canal and is hailed as a hero, James’ secret is ironically set in perspective. The irony is ours to observe, but James’ to silently suffer. His prematurely tired eyes see too much.
He befriends Margaret Anne, a fourteen year old who willingly services the local teenage gang,but he treats her with gentleness, which the other boys don’t, and she responds in kind. Another neighbor, Kenny, is somewhat simple but openly good-natured. He collects animals, with ambitions to open a zoo. On his birthday, Kenny ties his gift, a white mouse, to the string of a helium filled balloon and it sails off–to the moon, Kenny thinks. And in the one part of the film that rather jarringly doesn’t work, Ramsay then takes flight into a fantasy of mice on the moon. As a metaphor for an escape that the boys will never have, the mouse floating away on the balloon is brilliant. Ramsay should have stopped while she was ahead.
But that’s a minor flaw in a film that has a style and a feel all its own. Photographed in deep–but not bright–hues and superbly composed frames, Ramsay uses the lightest of touches with occasionally hand held camera for energy and slow motion shots for emphasis. She draws completely natural performances from both the adults and the children and she allows her camera to linger on facial expression, often more telling than any dialogue.
On a chance bus ride to the outskirts of town, James romps through an open field of dry, golden grain. Simply to be away from the filth and the complications of his day-to-day existence provides him a few moments of joy and an idea of what might be. But Ramsay is rooted in harsh realities and doesn’t sugarcoat the destinies of her characters. In so skillfully drawing out their humanity, she renders their misery all the more profound and profoundly felt. This is artistic filmmaking of the highest order, but it’s also a film without catharsis. Painful and upsetting, Ratcatcher won’t leave you alone after it’s over.