After being startled by Lynne Ramsey’s Morvern Callar, I went back and watched Ratcatcher, her debut feature-length movie that is one of the very few first movies by any director to earn a Criterion Collection release. There are a few times when I have debated the wisdom of some of Criterion’s curations — why Maitresse, for instance? — but this wasn’t one of them. Ratcatcher is wholly deserving of the attention, especially since it probably wouldn’t have seen release here on video otherwise.
Ratcatcher is set in the council flats (read: slums) of 1973 Glasgow, where bags of garbage pile up in courtyards and on corners no thanks to a citywide trash-hauler’s strike. Rats and lice are rampant, and the unhealthy conditions of the neighborhood are made all the worse by a stagnant canal that runs right past the houses. In the first few minutes of the film, James (William Eadie), one of the neighborhood boys, tussles with his friend Ryan (Thomas McTaggart) in the muddy water — then looks on in horror as Ryan goes under and drowns. James flees and runs back to his house just as several neighbors discover the body, and when his mother sees him she embraces him and whispers: “I thought it was you.” She saw the corpse from their apartment window. James is not a cruel person but he is an emotionally crippled one, and the experience will only make him all the more damaged and withdrawn.
When James inadvertently causes the drowning death of a friend, the nascent guilt
from that incident eventually emerges to rule the whole of his life.
The death of the boy is just one more shade of gray in James’s home life. His father is like most men his age: hard-drinking, thoughtless, not unloving but terribly inept at being the man he needs to be. His two sisters (one older, one about the same age) engage in the usual sibling rivalry, and his mother does what little she can to keep the bunch of them fed and clothed and happy. There is a chance, however remote, that they may be relocated from the flat and into an actual house, and in one of the movie’s loveliest scenes James sneaks onto a bus, rides out to where the houses are being built, and pretends he actually lives there for an afternoon. The parents of the dead boy move out not long after their son dies, and James watches them with haunted eyes as they scream at each other while trying to shove their furniture into the van.
James’s friends in the neighborhood are few and far between. Kenny, another neighbor, hoards animals in his room and shares them with his friends, but he’s got a disturbingly suggestible streak. When he shows off his new mouse to the local gang (who are just this side of being bullies), they toss it around like a Hackey Sack, and compel Kenny to tie it to a balloon and send it for a ride. There is also Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), an unhappy teenaged girl whom the local boys torment sexually, and at one point they even coax James into coming along for one of their gang-bangs, but he and Margaret Anne actually like each other — possibly because he welches out on the rape and in fact is more interested in being a friend to her than a sexual partner. At one point they bathe together, and even though they giggle and throw soap at each other the scene is actually about how in some small way they have both grown up a little.
James's hardscrabble family life amidst the trash-choked Glasgow slums is made
marginally more bearable when he meets the equally withdrawn Margaret Anne.
Like Callar after it, Ratcatcher is fairly plotless; it’s more about the moment-to-moment feelings of life in that time and place. That said, I’ve noticed that the best movies that have no plot do have a story, and in this case the story is about James dealing, however he can, with the ugly circumstances of his life. Under it all, he is wracked with guilt and misery. He was responsible for the other boy’s death and couldn’t admit to it, but there are other things that pile up and add to his sense of worthlessness, as when assessors from the housing council come and he is all too eager to let them in even though the place is a disaster. “If we don’t get that house, it’ll be your fucking fault,” his father excoriates him. He was undressed and covered with filth when the councilmen showed up, having just saved Kenny from nearly drowning in the canal. (More guilt: Kenny, the “spastic”, merited being saved, but evidently Ryan did not.)
Ramsey finds a way to make everything look lovely or at least striking in this film. She moves the camera in close and shows us the things that James also sees: the scars on his father’s face (and when he gets into a streetfight late in the film we can see how he got like that); the rats burrowing under the trashbags; the glint of Margaret Anne’s glasses in the bottom of canal after the bullies tear them off and throw them away. The scenes with their potential future house are almost dreamlike; there’s a repeated, striking image of a golden field of grain just outside the kitchen window that at first I thought was a fake or a composite, but it isn’t.
The ending is ambiguous — something on the order of the end of The Piano — and has sparked a great deal of discussion. I won’t describe it here, since it is best seen in context with the film and is probably designed to be read as neither happy nor sad, but simply as a statement of fact. James’s sense of guilt will not be removed by him changing his locale. He can run away, but he can’t leave — not when the real problem is within him. Not long before that ending, there is a shot of him standing alone in the street outside his house after the garbagemen have finally arrived, and what strikes us most is how the neighborhood now seems all the more forlorn and empty.