Despite only having four feature-length films and a handful of shorts, filmmaker Lynne Ramsay has crafted a compelling body of work, one that has impressed film lovers worldwide. Her films starkly depict lives of people under massive fire, especially when it comes to children. She isn’t afraid to show how bleak and intimidating life really is for the young generation. Her raw directorial debut Ratcatcher (1999), definitely showcases that, while refusing to sanitize its more abhorrent elements.
The film tells the story of 12-year-old James Gillespie (William Eadie), a very sensitive young man living in Glasgow during the mid-1970s. Haunted by a dark secret, which consists of the drowning of a local boy, where James never signals for help, he also tries to make sense of a world changing, and not always for the better. To make matters worse, the neighborhood he lives is filled with trash that’s left by the garbagemen who have gone on strike, creating more health hazards and breeding grounds for rats. He becomes alienated from his mother, alcoholic father, and two sisters who don’t seem to fully understand him. He seeks refuge from the canal where he imagines a better life. From there, he meets and bonds with a awkward and bullied 14-year-old girl and a younger boy, one who seems to have a innocent and hopeful outlook on life despite the bleak surroundings. Feeling that his situation will never get better, he jumps into the canal, where he seemingly drowns himself. The last moments of the film have James and his family moving to a new house/neighborhood, with or without James?
Obviously, with that last sentence to the previous paragraph, the ending is highly ambiguous, whether deliberate or otherwise, in which you’re left with either hope or despair. Is it real or just a dream conjured up by James to escape his depressing existence. However you interpret it, you still have a film filled with blunt beauty and unsparing truth. Unlike most coming-of-age movies, Ratcatcher never fails to be dire. There’s themes of bullying, emotional and sometimes physical abuse, disease (where characters find tiny bugs in their hair due to the never-ending garbage in their community), supposed suicide (James in the canal), and suggestive sexuality. It’s not a film that’s always suited for children. It’s a definite punch to the gut.
The actors (especially Eadie) are all impressive. They look and feel like real people. There’s no vanity to them. They don’t care how they look and behave. This is quite unusual for a coming-of-age film, and incredibly rare.
The new Blu-ray from Criterion is great. The new 4K restoration gives the film an entirely new relevance. The nice supplements include interviews with Ramsay from this year and 2002; a recent interview from 2020 with cinematographer Alwin Kuchler; three short films by Ramsay: Small Deaths (1995), Kill the Day (1996), and Gasman (1997); and trailer. There are also wonderful essays by film critic Girish Shambu and filmmaker Barry Jenkins.
I’m really glad I had the chance to see this film for the first time. It’s uncompromising, realistic (if a little too real), and unabashedly human. It represents Ramsay at the beginning of her storytelling gifts and unblinking eye for natural detail. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.