Film Study: Ratcatcher (1999)

Scottish director/screenwriter Lynne Ramsay’s debut feature film Ratcatcher is about a 12-year old boy who bears witness to the drowning death of a friend.

Glasgow, 1973. James lives in a grimy council estate flat with his Ma (Mandy Matthews in an excellent performance), Da (Tommy Flanagan from Sons of Anarchy), and two sisters. The binmen are on strike, and piles of uncollected garbage metastasize in every corner and alley. One summer day, James (William Eadie) and his neighbor Ryan Quinn (Thomas McTaggart) are roughhousing near a local canal. They take turns shoving the other into the water. The line between rowdy play and actual melee blurs. Suddenly, Ryan’s dead body is floating just beneath the canal’s surface as James runs home, utterly stunned.

This is not the film’s climax; it is its premise. Ratcatcher is less about the death of Ryan Quinn and more about the life of James after he is shaken awake from the dream of childhood.

As we humans ponder our lives, we can often identify two distinct parts — the “before” and the “after.” At any age, no matter how or where or when we have lived, there tends to be one event in our past that changed the way we see the world and ourselves. Even if we don’t know it at the time, that one bump in the road determines so much about where we go and what we do next, and continues to do so even as it disappears in our rear-view mirrors. Ramsay invites us to observe James experiencing his great schism, and peek in on his “after.”

When we cease to feel invincible and realize that yes, we are really, actually going to die, we can only hope that we have the wherewithal at that moment to attempt a fabrication of the life we want, while the Reaper waves from his rocking chair in the corner. It is a difficult task at age 25, nigh-impossible at age 12. Young James is forced to contend with the concept of death itself, as well as his degree of responsibility for Ryan’s. Although the experience fully discombobulates him, it is also revelatory, and allows him to begin to understand aspects of our world that had been previously obscured by childhood’s veil.

It is after the drowning that we see James begin to yearn. He rides the bus to the end of the line, where new public housing units are still under construction. In one of the most beautifully-shot sequences I have ever seen, he plays in the serene wheat field and explores the novel indoor toilets, bathing in the possibility of a newer and better life. He begins a friendship with an older girl, Margaret Anne. She’s another obviously shell shocked kid, and she’s instantly aware of James’ vulnerability. Their relationship is one of the many joys of the film — true platonic love; passengers side-by-side.

The coming-of-age film has become something of a lost art recently. The best exemplars of the genre capture both the pain and absurdity of adolescence, sometimes seriously and poignantly (François Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows,” David Gordon Green’s “George Washington”), sometimes hilariously (Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused,” John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club”). Recent entries have left a lot to be desired — there is the cloying and twee “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” the scandal-courting “Diary of a Teenage Girl,” and movies like “Dope,” which are labeled “coming-of-age” but are really a different kind of movie altogether that happen to feature teenage characters. There are simply not a lot of these kinds of films being made nowadays. Linklater’s (brilliant) “Boyhood” being an extremely notable exception, films about adolescents seem to now be made for and marketed to adolescents, which, due to the studios’ ridiculously cynical assessment of what that cohort wants, often means that they are full of quick cuts, gratuitous action and romance, and a nearly wholesale refusal to present characters as anything but fully-formed, adult “types” with teen avatars.

Not Ratcatcher. Ramsay invites us to be still and breathe with her characters — there is a slowness in this film that I find irresistible. Made on a slight budget and shot on location, this first feature film exhibits a breathtaking and impressive calmness. Fearlessly, Ramsay’s camera lingers just long enough to make sure no composition goes unnoticed. She cultivates silence. Her camera moves in a way that is totally noticeable but never garish. It is her remarkable restraint, so rare in a debut, that immerses us in Ratcatcher’s world of stained concrete, skinned knees and fermented dreams. It’s a vibe that many filmmakers pursue but never grasp their whole careers, yet Ramsay proves herself an auteur in this first attempt.

Ratcatcher affected me — intellectually and emotionally. Maybe the reason why we hold these “coming-of-age classics” so dear is that they help us to deal with changes in our own lives. Somehow they help us summon the bravery to let go of the “before” and embrace the “after.”

Ratcatcher is available to stream on Hulu+.

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