1999, NR, 93 min. Directed by Lynne Ramsay. Starring John Miller, Leanne Mullen, Michelle Stewart, Lynne Ramsay Jr., Mandy Matthews, Tommy Flanagan, William Eadie.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., March 2, 2001
Glasgow, mid-Seventies. A garbagemen's strike afflicts the city. Children in the projects play king of the mountain on mounds of garbage; rats overrun the trash bags, the streets, the dingy hallways of tenement homes. A nearby canal is a toxic wasteland. While boys muck around in the diseased water, a drowning occurs, and 12-year-old James Gillespie's life changes forever. From the first moments of this bleak Scottish export, the misery of these people is deeply felt. Children come of age long before their time as families are broken by poverty, drink, death, and grime. The only way out, for the Gillespies and other families in the projects, is to be selected by the housing commission to relocate to the suburbs. While for most, it's an intangible, delectable dream, the proverbial pot of gold across a filth-streaked city, James actually knows this paradise. One day he takes a bus to the outskirts of town and stumbles across the half-built El Dorado of everyone's dreams. Leaping through windows, lolling in brand-new bathtubs, James finds joy, and the audience finally finds a moment of comfort. Here, a child plays as he is supposed to: not among rats, but through wheat fields. It's the first (and very nearly the last) carefree moment in this desolate picture. Dialogue is spare, but what's there is cutting (and subtitled -- the Scottish brogue here is so thick you'll be glad for the translation). The face of James, who is staggeringly played by newcomer William Eadie, is almost always pinched and pained, and it hurts to watch someone so young racked with an incomparable guilt (James was implicated in the accidental drowning). Every instance of tenderness -- in a mother's impromptu dance around the living room, or between two children first learning how to use their bodies like adults -- is returned tenfold by despair (Da comes home and hits James' mother, James' young lover offers herself to every other boy on the block). It's a depressing film (though not joyless), and it's difficult to recommend something so agonizing to watch. But writer/director Lynne Ramsay (a Cannes award-winning short film director in her feature film debut) still produces poetry in all this devastation. She finds the blue in every gray, the thing to wonder at amidst all the wretched. Ratcatcher is an inner-city tragedy that plays its story simply, sorrowfully, and beautifully.