Ratcatcher (Lynne Ramsay, 1999)

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A boy rotates within a sheer curtain. The twisting fabric tightly envelopes him like a shroud over a cadaver, his closed eyes visible though the material. Color is muted, the sky dull behind him, the flowers stitched into the material are white. As he slowly (and in slow motion) revolves, the sound of kids playing outside registers, but the noise is faint, distant. Eventually, an adult hand enters the frame, and a slap round the head jolts young Ryan Quinn, and the viewer, out of their reveries. 

This opening prepares us for a child’s subjectivity, but it won’t belong to Ryan. The premonition contained within this image is fulfilled within minutes, as he disappears beneath the surface of a grimy canal, accidentally drowned while engaged in rough play with his friend James Gillespie (William Eadie). From here, we remain alongside this other boy, as he negotiates his feelings of unspoken guilt alongside his uneasy growing pains. 

The setting of Lynn Ramsay’s Ratcatcher is a decrepit Glaswegian council estate in the midst of 1973’s lengthy refuse collectors’ strike. Garbage bags and litter accumulate on streets and lawns whilst public health concerns are mounting over the resulting rat infestation. Winding behind the estate, the canal offers a permanent reminder to James of his guilt. Existing amongst this squalor, the inhabitants are simply waiting to leave. As the council slowly sets about rehousing their tenants, the five strong Gillespie family dream of moving out of their tiny flat, into a place with an indoor toilet and where they don’t need a bed in the kitchen. These characters feel lived in. The naturalistic performances that Ramsay elicits from her non-professional cast leave us in no doubt that these are real lives before us. 

James is happier in the company of women than with men. While his drunken father seeks to bond over football (the consuming interest of British males), he loathes the sport. Although he modestly complains when asked to dance by his mother, he rarely seems happier than when hugging her stomach and swaying to Tom Jones. This skinny boy is twelve years old, caught in the liminal space between childhood and adolescence, increasingly conscious of sexual desire, yet not fully comprehending it. Not truly part of the gang of older boys who roam the estate, yet more worldly than the other boy present, animal loving Kenny, James forms a bond with the teenage Margaret Anne. 

This girl is first encountered in an outhouse on the bank of the ever-present canal, giving herself sexually to the collective gang, receiving no pleasure in return. The boys treat her roughly, taking her glasses and throwing them into the water. She invites James to sit next to her, encouraging him to place his hand on her leg. The camera lingers on a red graze upon her knee. As their friendship builds, their innocent play blurs with connotations of the sexual. As that knee implies, sex and violence are never far apart. James’ continuing witness to Margaret Anne’s abuse by the boys, and of aggression from his father towards his mother, shake his understanding of his own place in the world. Two separate and unwanted gifts – a pair of football boots from his father, and the shoes that Ryan’s mother was buying her son as he died – bind his secret guilt and his troubled sense of masculinity together. 

Trained as a photographer, Ramsay combines striking compositions with an earthy color palate, investing the desolate landscapes with extraordinary beauty, aided by Rachel Portman’s sparse soundtrack. This isn’t purely a work of social realism. Horror gives way to whimsy in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, as Kenny attaches the tail of his pet mouse to a balloon, and watches it drift upwards. Ramsay cuts to the destination Kenny imagines for his beloved pet. A group of mice scurry around the surface of moon, feasting on its dairy based soil. 

James discovers a fantasy of his own. Taking a random bus ride beyond the edge of the city, a rare occasion that we see beyond the confines of the estate and its canal, he comes across a deserted building site on which new family-size homes are being constructed. Exploring one of these houses, he is entranced by the field behind it, rows of bright yellow wheat growing as far as the eye can see. As James climbs through an empty window frame, it appears that he is entering into a painting, a new and magical realm. It isn’t clear that these houses are the ones intended for families such as his to be rehoused in, but for James this is now his dream of the future. 

Ratcatcher unfolds a world away from Lynne Ramsay’s recent, and brutal, New York set You Were Never Really Here. Yet both are very much the work of the same filmmaker. In each, a female perspective is granted to a traditionally male genre (the action thriller and the boy’s coming of age story), both unfold in worlds where men act violently towards women, and where sons are attached to mothers. Each renders subjectively the lives of individuals whose experience of the world is shaped by trauma. If I declare my preference for Ratcatcher over the morose You Were Never Really Here, it might be summed up by the fact that I find the plastic sheet which Joe (Joachim Phoenix) pulls to his face to be suffocating. Ryan’s curtain gives me room to breathe. 

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