Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Films of Lynne Ramsay: Ratcatcher (1999)

Ratcatcher (1999)
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay   
Written by: Lynne Ramsay.
Starring: William Eadie (James), Tommy Flanagan (Da), Mandy Matthews (Ma), Michelle Stewart (Ellen), Lynne Ramsay Jr. (Anne Marie), Leanne Mullen (Margaret Anne), John Miller (Kenny), Jackie Quinn (Mrs. Quinn), James Ramsay (Mr. Quinn).

In Ratcatcher, Lynne Ramsay’s feature film debut, she continues the same themes that were in her trilogy of short films – Small Deaths, Kill the Day and Gasman. Like those films, Ratcatcher takes places in the lower income tenements of Glasgow, and is about the painful transition from childhood to adolescence into adulthood. The film locks onto the point of view of James, a young boy who lives with his family in 1973, where Glasgow was mired in a garbage strike that littered the lower income areas with black, plastic garbage bags – which of course, attracted rats. James seems like a fairly normal boy on the cusp of being a teenager – but the first time we see him playing in the canal that runs through his neighborhood, he does something that many children do – but with disastrous results. Playing with another boy in the canal, James gets angry and pushes the boy down, under the water. When he doesn’t come back up again, James runs off, leaving the other boy dead in the canal. No one suspects James of having anything to do with this death – he “gets away with it” – but in doing so becomes a shell of boy, raked with guilt, but unable to do anything about it. Again and again in the film, it will be what James’ inaction that haunts him, much more than his actions.

The film opens with its most haunting visual – a slow motion shot of the soon to be dead boy wrapping himself in his mother’s curtain – which as many people point out, looks like a funeral shroud. Gradually the shot’s speed quickens, and snaps to full motion when his mother slaps upside the head and says “Look at my curtain!” The people in Ratcatcher may live in a low income tenement, and spend the entirety of the movie literally surrounded by garbage, but they still try and make their homes look nice. James’ father brings home an unused can of paint he finds – high quality stuff – and he plans on repainting with it. His mother doesn’t see much of a point – because they’re moving soon (or so she hopes) in a more upscale complex. Everyone in the movie hopes to move there soon – they’re just waiting for their approval. In one of the films few moments outside the slate grey, depressing tenement, James heads out on a bus to the new apartments – surrounded by beautiful fields. It is a moment of beauty in an otherwise grey existence.

James is basically a good kid – one who made a bad mistake, and is stricken with guilt over it – but he’s nicer to the outsiders in his age group than the roaming gang of boys who terrorize everyone – at least when they are alone. He befriends Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), a gawky, awkward girl a few years older, with thick glasses, who is picked on and used by that pack of teenage boys for sex – something she doesn’t really want, but goes along with in the hopes that perhaps that will make them be nicer to her. When she and James are alone, they have a sweet relationship with each other – even when sleeping in the same bed, or bathing together, there is nothing sexual between them – the two simply bond over being outsiders, and need to say little to each other. Even this doesn’t make James fish her glasses out of the canal for her when the gang throws them in though – even though he can see them (he does go back later in the movie to try to retrieve them) or make him step up late in the film when the boys are “taking turns” with her – and she looks at him with look that quietly pleads for help. James wants to be a good – he simply cannot will himself into action. The same could be said for his friendship with Kenny (John Miller) who has development issues. James can be kind and patient when there’s no one else around, but when the gang shows up and picks on Kenny, he does nothing to intervene. When Kenny ties his pet rat to a balloon and sends him “to the moon” (in the films one fantastical sequence), James indulges Kenny’s delusion for a while – not wanting to tell him what really happened to the rat – but when he grows frustrated late in the film, he will cruelly tell Kenny what happened. James is like a lot of children – he desperately wants to fit in and he desperately wants to do the right thing – especially after his actions at the beginning of the film – but when they two conflict, he takes the cowardly way out.

The films ending is deliberately left ambiguous – which is another hallmark of Ramsay’s work, as she doesn’t like to force-feed anything to the audience, but rather prefers to let them form their own opinion. No matter how you read the final scenes – whether metaphorical or literal – they do provide James with a sort of relief that the rest of the movie doesn’t. It’s ending that calls to mind two other great films about childhood – Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows and Robert Bresson’s Mouchette (Bresson is a director Ramsay has admitted is an influence on her). Ratcatcher is not the masterpiece those two films are, but is a remarkably assured directorial debut. The film never plays quite the way we expect it to – there are no scenes of James’ eventually breaking down and confessing his sins to be forgiven them – he doesn’t ask for or expect forgiveness. Ramsay locks into his perception early on, but allows the audience to read what they want to in James – and his facial expressions, which is all Ramsay gives us in the films most crucial moments. That shows a rare confidence in Ramsay that most experienced filmmakers do not have. Right from the start of her feature career, Ramsay showed a rare maturity in her work.

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