Ruthless realism and complex characters is the two main, strong points in the Scottish director Lynne Ramsay’s films, “Ratcatcher” (1999) and “Movern Callar” (2002). The everyday life and anguish of lower class people is her core theme. Both films are great, but it is “Ratcatcher” I will review.
In the recent decades, the subject of poverty has been dealt with masterfully in many films. Courtney Hunts “Frozen River” (2008), Andrea Arnolds “Fish Tank” (2009) and Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” (2010) to mention the very best ones. Even if all of these films deal with people of lower classes, every film has told their story differently and adding different elements to their story. “Fish Tank” for example also deals with troublesome relations between minors and adults and “Frozen River” deals with illegal human smuggling. “Ratcatcher” also, like these other films, focuses on the plight and difficulties inherent in the devastations of poverty. It is also about death, guilt, dreams and desolation.
“Ratcatcher” has one of the bleakest openings found in modern cinema. It introduces Ryan, a young 12-year old boy, only to drown him moments later. The story then follows James, a boy of a like age, who accidentally kills Ryan in the midst of aggressive play. James refuses to tell anyone that he killed his playmate, which results in him developing a terrible and deep-seated fear of water. He lives with his alcoholic father (Tommy Flanagan), his mother and two sisters. He hangs out with his friend Kenny, who has a huge interest and love for animals but is slightly dim. He also starts a platonic relationship with an older teenage girl, who is the local sexual punch bag for the town bullies. James dreams of moving away from the slums, away from the small dirty apartment he currently lives in, and moving into a beautiful big house he sees in suburban neighborhoods. But dreams defer and old secrets come back to haunt James.
The film “Ratcatcher” gives the viewer a slice-of-life experience while watching James trying to find happiness despite his situation. He is in deep conflict with his father and has almost no relationship with his mother. The mother tries her best to keep her children happy and cheerful when the father is out at the pubs, which at times works and at times doesn’t. James is unimpressed by his mother’s efforts. He tries to be friends with Kenny, but finds him annoying. Anne Marie, his “girlfriend”, is the only person he loves. A major current theme in the film is James dreams of moving to bigger, cleaner house in the suburbs. His lust for a better life is similar to that of “Fish Tanks” major protagonist Mia, who lives in the dead end corner of a lower class suburb but dreams of taking off and finding something better. Both films capture the desire and hope of a better life masterfully. However, Andrea Arnold “Fish Tank” is more subtle in this regard, using Mia’s obsession with freeing a horse as compound allegory of her own will to escape from her current life and using the song “California Dreaming” as a constant symbol of dreaming of a “warmer” home. In “Ratcathcer”, James’ dreams are depicted by him straight out asking his father if they have any chances of getting the opportunity to move to a new house far from the squalor of urban projects and crushed spirits. The film also uses a beautifully shot scene where James wonders around the project of under-construction semi-rural houses in a far-off (end of the line bus trip) “richer” neighborhood, were he pretends his occupation of the unfinished houses. James, being younger than 15-year old Mia, has the narrative conceive of his character as open and playful about his wishes. He wants what he wants. When he realizes he probably never will get to live in the kind of houses he longs after, he loses all hope in life. Being so young and powerless, he has no chance for happiness.
James’ friend, Kenny, is portrayed as the young man with a huge love and fascination for animals. Unfortunately, Kenny is stuck in the slums and has no chances of doing anything with his interest. He tries to fish pets out of a lifeless river bordering the back of the projects but, just as the social gives the tenants of this area, he can catching nothing from its dead waters.. He’s naivety is constantly taken advantage of and when he finally acquires a live specimen to love The town bullies manipulate Kenny and make him believe strange things, with tragic results. Kenny’s narrative portrait encompasses, for Ramsay, the stock of children who due to their background have no chances to develop their interest into something productive for either themselves or the society in which they live. Kenny is stuck with unfilled ambition and becomes the harbinger of waste.
Anne Marie, who is the girlfriend of James in the “Ratcatcher” dreams of something better. She starts a relationship with James because he is the only male around who is gentle towards her and in many ways mirrors her own outsider status. The town bullies more or less bully her into sexual favors, which Anne Marie partly hates and partly just accepts as natural in the mechanisms of survival of her urban lower class milieu. James becomes her havoc in a hopeless storm.
“Ratcatcher” is a film about an accidental murder that doesn’t dwell in the theme of guilt, but recognizes the traps and containments of poverty from which the act springs. James does feel guilt for his friends death, but has already so many and varied (and unsolvable) problems in his life he forces himself to forget the incident. Instead, he creates a fear of the tepid and stagnant river where his friend met his death. This projection of fear and guilt is rather symbolic. James keeps his secret well kept, which is easily done since the adults in his world have little, to no actual contact with the youngsters. Ramsay cleverly gives us a believable portrayal of a case when a child has accidentally killed another child. James, being so young and full of despair already from being poor, can’t handle anymore misery. He’s young mind blames the water. The harsh environment has taught him to ignore troublesome feelings and detach himself from the things happening around him.
“Ratcatcher” is honest, giving a view into an unkind life that gives no happy endings. Ramsay is merciless to her characters and merciless to the audience. Her debut movie offers nothing but reality.
Update: Ms. Ramsey has won a major award at the London film festival! Read about it here.