Written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, Ratcatcher is the story of a boy living in 1973 Glasgow during a garbage strike as his life is changed by a horrifying event. The coming-of-age story follows a young boy dealing with his dreary environment as well as the guilt of his own actions as he tries to make sense of everything around him. Starring William Eadie, Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews, Michelle Stewart, Lynne Ramsay Jr., and Leanne Mullen. Ratcatcher is a somber yet captivating drama from Lynne Ramsay.
After the death of a boy (Thomas McTaggart) at a canal nearby his apartment building, James Gillespie (William Eadie) is shocked over what happened as he feels responsible for the boy’s death. Surrounded by amounts of garbage around his home and his dad (Tommy Flanagan) often presented in a drunken stupor. James lives with his mother (Mandy Matthews), his older sister Ellen (Michelle Stewart) and the youngest in Anne Marie (Lynne Ramsay Jr.). With the boy’s parents (James Ramsay and Jackie Quinn) ravaged with grief, James deals with his guilt by hanging around Glasgow with friends including an animal-loving boy named Kenny (John Miller).
James later meets an older girl named Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen) where the two become friends amidst the chaos of the garbage strike happening. With James wondering where Ellen goes on a bus, he goes on a bus ride to a town where he goes inside a new, empty house. With the family hoping to move out of the dreary environment, James wanders around as he spends more time with Margaret Anne where he’s becoming sexually intrigued. When the garbage strike starts to end and James nearly gets his family in trouble when some people visit. Feeling alone and his world changing along with the reminder of what he’s done, James ponders his own existence in the world that he lives in.
The film opens with a boy messing around with a curtain as he goes to play with his friend unknowingly that this wild sense of innocence in a dirty canal would kill him. For the other person that was playing with him, it would change his outlook towards life as he would try and ponder what to do as well as deal with the things around him. Throughout the film, this young 12-year old boy would explore the opposite sex along with the idea of a world outside of dreary Glasgow which would further impact his loss of innocence.
Lynne Ramsay’s script is very entrancing in the way she follows the life of a young boy as he wanders around throughout his life. The script doesn’t have a lot of dialogue though the dialogue does contain frank language and subject matters that would further the development of James Gillespie. While his father might seem like a mean drunk, he’s not a total bad guy though his relationship with James is a bit complicated. At the same time, James’ relationship with his sisters and mother are much warmer despite some words though the audience never really figures out what Ellen does when she goes out of town.
The rest of the story plays loose through scenes where there’s a bit of fantasy but also moments of wandering which allows James to ponder the world around him through silent curiosity. Even as he is watching everything around him from the way kids try to kill rats amidst the pile of garbage to the way he always look at the dirty canal where the death of his friend happens. All of this is creating a major on a boy’s life and his outlook towards the world. Ramsay’s script is truly mesmerizing for the way she let the action take charge and let things play just as it is.
Through her direction, Ramsay creates a film that is very compelling and stark in its imagery and tone. Yet, there are a couple of sequences where things either play up as a semblance of hope or as a fantasy scene. The latter of which involves Kenny’s little mouse that provides a wonderfully imaginative scene. Some of the scenes Ramsay creates such as the scenes in the corn fields has a lush, naturalistic quality that will remind audiences of the work of the legendary Terrence Malick. The Malickian influence is prevalent in the way Ramsay let things play naturally where boys are running around and things happen including in an intimate moment where James’ parents are dancing to Frank and Nancy’s Sinatra’s Somethin’ Stupid.
The direction also has Ramsay create shots in various styles including some tracking steadicam shots to follow James running in despair over the things happening to him in the third act. There is also some amazing hand-held and steady dolly shots to help the audience be transfixed by the dreary world that these people are living in. Throughout the film, all of the pile of trash and garbage is seen to help enhance that sense of despair. Once all of it is gone, there’s a feeling of emptiness that becomes very heartbreaking. It’s strange that in this pile of trash along with vermin, lice, and rats. There’s a certain beauty to it in all of that decay as it serves as another character throughout the film. These little touches to detail along with the big moments in film help create was is truly a hypnotic yet ethereal film all due to Lynne Ramsay’s magnificent direction.
Cinematographer Alwin H. Kuchler does a superb job with the film‘s dreary yet gorgeous look to the film with its naturalistic look for many of the film‘s damp scenes. Kuchler also creates something very intimate for many of the film’s interior scenes to help maintain the stark mood of the film along with some underwater shots that is presented with a beauty as it’s among one of the film’s technical highlights. Editor Lucia Zucchetti does an amazing job with the editing in giving the film a mostly straightforward approach with elements of jump-cuts and slow-motion cuts. There’s also a few half-frame speed shots that adds a stylistic flair for the film.
Production designer Jane Morton and art director Robina Nicholson do excellent work with look of the film from the decayed apartments that are filled with garbage to the look of furniture and TV sets to maintain the look and feel of the 1970s. Costume designer Gill Horn does a good job with the costumes from the dresses and bellbottoms along with the suits to play up the look of the 70s and the dark tone of the film. Visual effects supervisor Steven Begg does a great job with the wonderful visual effects-driven fantasy sequence that involves the moon and mice playing around the moon as if it‘s the moon landing all over again. Sound recordist Richard Flynn does stellar work with the sound to capture the chaos of the surroundings including the intimacy in some of the quieter moments in the film.
The film’s music by Rachel Portman is definitely wonderful for its plaintive yet sparse score filled with harps and soft orchestral arrangements to see the melancholic mood of the film. The rest of the film’s soundtrack includes an array of music including Tom Jones, Eddie Cochran, the Chordettes, Frank & Nancy Sinatra, Nick Drake, and the famed Carl Orff piece Gassenhauer that was the theme from Malick’s 1973 film Badlands. The music in the soundtrack along with Portman’s score is another outstanding highlight of the film.
The casting by Gillian Berrie is phenomenal with its array of people who are either non-actors or unknowns from the likes of Craig Bonar and Andrew McKenna as a couple of older friends of James, Thomas McTaggart as the ill-fated Ryan, James Ramsay and Jackie Quinn as Ryan’s parents, and John Miller as the animal-obsessed Kenny. Michelle Stewart is very good as James’ older yet more outgoing sister Ellen while Lynne Ramsay Jr. is excellent as James’ livelier yet Tom Jones-loving younger sister Anne Marie. Leanne Mullen is radiant as Margaret Anne, a teenage girl whom Tommy befriends as she takes him in because he’s not like the other boys.
Tommy Flanagan and Mandy Matthews are great as James’ parents with Flanagan in the more aggressive though loving father who has a complex relationship with James. Matthews provides a much warmer performance as a woman who cares for James while being the glue in the family. Finally, there’s William Eadie in a powerful yet thrilling performance as James Gillespie. Eadie allows the camera to follow him as he is always observing everything around while clinging to some hope of being in a new home as he tries to deal with the idea that he possibly killed someone. Eadie is the highlight of the film as the innocent curiosity and very quiet performance is really the heart of the film.
The 2002 Region 1 DVD from the Criterion Collection presents the film in a pristine, digital transfers with theatrical aspect ratio of 1:85:1 that is enhanced for 16x9 widescreen television along with stereo surround sound. The film also includes optional English subtitles for the film’s distinct Scottish accent. The DVD also includes numerous special features that also features the three award-winning short films Lynne Ramsay made before delving into feature film.
The first major special feature is a 22-minute video interview with Lynne Ramsay made specifically for the DVD. Ramsay talk about her experience in film school along with the short Small Deaths which she didn’t think would go to the Cannes Film Festival but ended up winning her a prize at the festival. For Ratcatcher, she was approached by producers about creating a treatment which she didn’t know what to do but what she did ended up working. Ramsay also talks about her approach to directing and to create spontaneity throughout the film as well as casting the children she needed. Ramsay also talks about the use of sound and music, the latter of which she wanted to use score music minimally instead of having it be on a scene to convey emotion like a lot of films. Ramsay also discusses about wanting to make the characters real and things feel natural as the overall video piece is superb.
The second special feature are the three short films of Lynne Ramsay. The first is 1995’s Small Deaths which revolves on three different girls named Anne Marie in three different vignettes. In each vignette, these girls would encounter events such as a father going off to work, sisters playing around at a cow field, and a young woman seeing something horrible. It’s a brilliant short that features a lot of Ramsay’s directorial style such as small moments and close-ups of objects and creatures which won her the Jury Prize short award at the 1996 Cannes Film Festival.
The second short is 1996’s Kill the Day is the story of a lonely drug addict struggling to get clean after being jailed for thievery. While it’s a film that doesn’t feature a lot of dialogue with a much looser narrative. It is still compelling for its study of a man trying live day-by-day as he reflects on more innocent times as a child. The film again features more of Ramsay’s visual style that includes shots of nature and slow-motion edits as the short won her a Jury Prize at the 1997 Clermont-Ferrand International Film Festival.
The third and final short is Gasman, a fifteen-minute short about a girl and her brother going to a Christmas party with their father. On their way, they meet a woman and her two kids as they all attend the party when the young girl is shocked by what the other girl says. This short is truly mesmerizing as it has a home-movie feel to it along with a looseness and improvisational approach that is captivating along with the performance of Lynne Ramsay Jr. as the young girl. The short would win another Jury Prize at the 1998 Cannes Film Festival as well as BAFTA Scotland award for Best Short.
Other small special features include the film’s theatrical trailer and a still gallery of photographs shot by the film’s second-unit director. Also included in the DVD set is a booklet that features an essay by Lizzie Francke. Francke’s essay discusses the film’s importance to British cinema as well as being among the great films about kids like Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. It’s a wonderful piece about a film that deserves to be seen to a wider audience.
Ratcatcher is a gorgeous yet harrowing film from Lynne Ramsay. Audiences that want films about great coming-of-age films about kids will see this as one of the definitive films of the last 20 years. Anyone new to Lynne Ramsay will definitely see this and her 2002 follow-up Morvern Callar as great places to start. Featuring amazing images, great use of music, and a phenomenal cast, it is a film that truly stands out for its realism and sense of imagination. In the end, Ratcatcher is a remarkable debut film from Lynne Ramsay.
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