Saturday, July 8, 2017


I never expected to watch an English-language movie with the subtitles on because I thought the characters spoke a different language. Such is the impenetrability of the Scottish accent.

Ratcatcher (1999), written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, might be the grimmest and grimiest slice-of-life, coming-of-age movie I've ever seen. It follows James (William Eadie), a 12-year-old boy who lives in Glasgow during the 1973 garbage strike, so rubbish and filth fill the streets. As the movie opens, James gets into a play fight with Ryan, a boy about his age, in the dirty canal near their homes, and Ryan drowns.

Immediately, the movie lets us know it is not going to be cutesy or sentimental. Ratcatcher avoids the obvious, trite arcs the story could have followed. James finds no escape or release (at least not permanently), and while he learns some important lessons, they aren't especially useful ones, more like realizations of how much his life sucks and probably won't get better.

James' family is poor. They live in a cramped, messy apartment, awaiting word that they can move to a nice new home in the countryside. In the meantime, James' mother (Mandy Mathews) combs lice from her son's scalp, his father (Tommy Flanagan) is usually drunk, and he doesn't get along with his sisters. The isolated James finds neither warmth nor comfort from his family and keeping secret his involvement in Ryan's death doesn't help.

It's a downer of a movie, but it's not completely grim. Ramsay mines some humanity from the bleakness. James finds friendship with Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), an older girl the local teenage gang bullies for sexual favors, and James even picks the lice out of her hair. They end up bathing together, but it's not really sexual (even though James' first sexual encounter is with her and it is extremely uncomfortable, for them and the audience); it's more innocent than that: they treat each other like people and show affection.

Ramsay also include some humor, albeit in an understated, sometimes depressing manner, the kind of material you laugh at in spite of yourself. After Ryan's mother (Jackie Quinn) breaks down in tears, she gives James the new shoes she purchased for her son the day he died. He complains loudly they don't fit. The cruel innocence of childhood.

Except for a couple of instances, Ramsay shoots the movie with the realism of a documentary, very down-to-earth and in-your-face with the squalor and desperation. We're the right there neck-and-neck with the characters, and the effect is discomforting.

Notable exceptions occur when James takes the bus to the homes under construction. He roams through the property and climbs through a window a wheat field where he can run unhindered in the warm glow.

Another time occurs when local boy Kenny (John Miller) ties his pet rat Snowball to a balloon and sets him free to float to the moon. The film becomes surreal in this sequence, showing the little rodent actually going to the moon, where several rats already live and scurry about. It's a jarring image in an otherwise grounded movie. I'm still torn over whether it's a nice moment of brightness or out of place.

Did I like the movie? I don't know. I admired the craft and the performances, and I wanted to see it through, never bored. It has moments of great power and insight, but I can't say I want to re-visit it anytime soon. It deals in uncomfortable truths.

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