|James with the neighborhood "slut" Maragret Anne in Lynne Ramsay's Ratcatcher (1999)|
d. Lynne Ramsay
Criterion Collection #162
When a film is "set during the national garbage strike in Scotland during the 1970s" you have a good idea of what you are in for. Like Scotland isn't filthy enough without a national garbage strike. Ratcatcher is a coming of age picture about a young Scottish lad- James (William Eadie) who accidentally kills one of his neighbors during the first five minutes in a muddy canal during the first five minutes of the film. It is, as they say, downhill from there, but Ramsay brings a strong narrative and visual approach to the utterly depressing material, making Ratcatcher a distinctive and memorable film about life in Scotland during the mid 1970s.
There are so many scenes of children playing in garbage that this image becomes the the signature of Ratcatcher. You've got a scene where a couple of ruffians extract an entire dog corpse from a trash bag and wave it around, you've got a little girl sitting in a pile of trash bags as one would sit on a thrown, and of course, you've got the handling of rats, dead and alive, as one would expect from the title.
Ramsay doesn't flinch from depicted the grim reality confronting young James. The simple fact that James kills another child in the first five minutes disorients the viewer, taking James out of the category of helpless observer of his unfortunate surroundings and more into the category of willing participant in the filth and degradation surrounding him.
There isn't much of a plot to speak of. The most plot-like story element is the "relationship" between James and Maragret Anne, a promiscuous older girl who takes a fancy to James even as she is relentlessly bullied into having sex(?) with a gang of neighborhood teens. Besides the heaps of uncollected rubbish (as they say in the UK) the fetid canal serves as a visual and narrative focus. Just looking at that canal was enough to make my skin crawl, and it is hard not to flinch when you see characters from the film immerse themselves in the filthy water.
The ending of Ratcatcher mixes a happy scene of James' family moving into a much sought after suburban home with James jumping into the canal in what looks to be a suicide attempt. Ramsay leaves it unclear as to which represents the "reality" but my money is on the suicide. Ratcatcher very much reminded me of Harmony Korine's Gummo. Gummo was released two years before Ratcatcher, but if you like one you will appreciate the other.