An art film disguised as social melodrama, Ratcatcher funnels Scotland's notorious garbage strike of the 1970s through the eyes of children in an impoverished Glasgow housing project. The film's beautifully captured images of these kids beset with hardship are remarkably honest, sometimes disturbing, and often haunting.
On the banks of an infested sewage canal running adjacent to their home, young James and neighbor Ryan Quinn are playing or fighting
-- it's hard to know the difference growing up in urban decay. The kids are prone to the typical adolescent problems one expects in a neighborhood like this; if growing up is difficult anywhere, then growing up here can be downright traumatic.
After their brief encounter, James isn't certain of his guilt or innocence in Ryan's death. He fled the scene too quickly to know for sure. What he does know is that he bullied the smaller Ryan, and when he fled the scene Ryan was in the cold currents of the canal, being drawn underneath to a quick and frightening end.
The guilt eats away at James, creating a rubbish in his heart like the clutter no trash man can take away. The bulk of the film follows James and a guilt constantly there behind his eyes, reflecting a conscience he somehow holds to in the midst of many crises. An alcoholic and unemployed dad inside the home and bigger-boy bullies outside, he needs to get away from a world he sees in a perpetually rotting state.
As the kids chase rats in the piled up heaps outside, James hops a bus to nowhere, no destination in mind. He finds a new, more prosperous housing project on the other side of town -- the kind his family wants to move into. Even the same sky with the same clouds seems prettier in new structures and open fields on the town's other side.
Ratcatcher is a film about learned behaviors, from James being bullied and then becoming a bully when he can, to street kids who create the same sexual tension they've seen at home, to a housing project left in disarray, where even the ever-present garbage symbolically speaks of a neighborhood left behind.
There's a neighbor kid, Kenny. He's a bit slower than the rest, not quite as bright. He functions as a sometimes comic relief in a film that desperately needs him. All of us have a Kenny in our lives -- the person who is often overlooked, the one that gets by in the joy of his own world, a world that when shared is seen as "different."
Kenny doesn't need much attention as he tends to his own quirky behaviors. He's also the "ratcatcher" in the film, and as such gives us an unexpected, delightful scene of imaginative reprieve from the spiritual and social squalor of trash-infested Glasgow.
Rich, raw visuals fill up Lynne Ramsay's debut directorial feature, lending poetic imagery to the hardship she depicts. Criterion's choice of subtitles helps with what would be unmanageable Scottish accents; titles are available on the disc as well as streaming at Netflix. This is a good thing -- the film is in English, but it's barely recognizable, which adds to the other-worldly feel of this neglected neighborhood.