Lynne Ramsay’s debut film Ratcatcher (1999) begins with an arresting scene: a boy’s head is tangled in a white curtain, twisting in slow motion. After a few seconds, the curtain begins to seem like a shroud and the smeary white light comes through the window like a reflection of the afterlife. Then the film snaps into regular speed, a hand coming in from the side of the frame to hit the boy’s head with a cracking sound.
The death-shrouded moment is gone, leaving us with a boy playing around and a mother upset he’s messing up her curtain. She drags him out to run an errand. The boy, Ryan (Thomas McTaggart), still keyed up, darts away from her at his first opportunity. Based on the flared ’70s outfits, grim housing stock, Glaswegian accents, and children playing in garbage-strewn streets (whacking at rats with sticks is a common pastime), it seems fair to assume that what is to come will be a kitchen-sink tale of social realism, contrasting youthful innocence with the grim reality of dysfunctional adult poverty.
But that doesn’t happen. A few minutes later, Ryan is dead. After running into another rangy pre-adolescent, James (William Eadie), the two get into a scrap along the trash-bottomed canal that runs through their neighborhood. It happens fast, a play-fight in the muddy water that turns fatal almost without James knowing it. Ramsay shoots the sequence in an elliptical fashion that leaves it unclear exactly what happened. James keeps his connection to Ryan’s death to himself, burying that knowledge inside himself but not deep enough to stop its toxicity from leaking out.
Both an archetypal first film and a unique creation, Ratcatcher has that sense of an artist boiling over with sights, sounds, and sensations she needs to get onto celluloid but is not especially concerned about bolting it onto a preexisting framework. In later films like We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) and You Were Never Really Here (2017), Ramsay harkened back to the hazy disconnection of her inaugural work while taking on more linear storytelling structures. Here, her background as a still photographer, short story writer, and cinematographer are all apparent in a film composed of a string of vignettes linked by the pungent setting and James’ watchful silence.
The film’s actions take place more by happenstance than cause and effect. Ramsay gives the drama a watching-from-afar sensation that seems designed to mimic the silent manner in which children tend to react to confusing or traumatizing events. Shot in the somewhat threadbare-looking Govan part of Glasgow and set during a lengthy trash haulers’ strike, the film’s characters are surrounded by mounting piles of garbage bags that move with the bodies of scurrying rats.
Living in tumbledown council housing blocks, many of the families pine for the day their number comes up on the list of people being moved across town to brand-new houses with yards. But even though this is a dream that seems destined to fall apart, Ramsay is more engaged by the nit and grit of these people’s lives – the actual sensation of cramped apartments with flickering TVs (a surreal mix of Tom Jones and news reports on rat infestation) and lurking rent collectors – than any desire to rub viewers’ noses in the pornographic poverty of it all.
The building blocks of Ratcatcher are mostly there in Small Deaths, Ramsay’s 1996 school film included with a couple other of shorts on the new Criterion Blu-ray edition. In that spooky Cannes award-winning three-part short, a young girl in a Glasgow housing project watches her mother try to placate her icy and distant father; when slightly older she has a disturbing encounter with a dead cow; as a curious teenager, she is pranked by a predatory gaggle of cackling boys into thinking she’s just seen a corpse.
Variations on those hinge moments are expanded upon here with James. His family, a pummeling drunk of a father (Tommy Flanagan) and a mother (Mandy Matthews) who is both plucky and resigned to her fate, seems at first cheerfully rambunctious and later deeply damaged. He starts running with a squad of teen boys with buzzed mod-ish haircuts and a feral mood about them who are routinely abusing a teen girl, Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), with whom James falls swooningly in love with. A seemingly mentally challenged and animal-obsessed friend of James’, Kenny (John Miller), accidentally kills his pet mouse Snowball by tying her tail to a balloon and letting it go, thinking she would fly to the moon.
Ramsay’s arresting style combines precisely framed docudrama-esque shots of the housing complex—the scene where the army shows up to clean the garbage feels both powerfully dramatic and true to life—with expressionistic interludes of blooming, wind-whispered fields that James escapes to. In one spectacular scene, James is wandering around in a half-built house when he notices a window in the kitchen. Framed like an Andrew Wyeth painting, the shot contrasts the kitchen’s grey walls with the rectangle of what lies beyond: a field of gorgeous golden wheat rippling in the sunlight like a realization of what James imagines lies beyond his world.
Ramsay pushes the envelope further by flirting with a cheeky bit of magic realism in the scene with Snowball and the balloon, which morphs into a shot of the mouse actually flying to the moon before flipping again to what looks like TV footage of rats scrambling over the moon’s surface only to circle back to an apparently dreaming James. He has a lot of reasons to dream.
Despite living more inside his head than the grungy reality of his surroundings, Ratcatcher nevertheless shows a fairly bleak and dehumanizing existence. The roaming children and depopulated cityscape convey the sense of a world undergoing a slow grind of entropy. Like many stories set amidst urban poverty, the characters dream of escape. Unlike many of those stories, Ratcatcher actually seems to provide it.
In the last sequence, one of the most affecting and unexpected moments in ’90s indie film, James’ family is shown walking across that golden field of wheat, various household items clutched in their hands, heading for their new home like pioneers. For the very first time, we see James’ face light up with a smile.
It’s as though they have escaped into a painting.