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With: William Eadie, Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews, Lynne Ramsay Jr, Michelle Stewart
Written by: Lynne Ramsay
Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: "Glasgow" English, with English subtitles
Running Time: -99
Date: 05/13/1999

Ratcatcher (1999)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

'Rat' Girl

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

A young boy twists himself up in his mother's white translucentcurtains, turning around and around, looking more and more like aspectre. Which in fact, is what he is. Before the next five minutes arethrough, this same little boy will be dead.

After fussing with his mother over whether or not to tuck his pant legs into his boots (he'll look like a "poof"), Ryan runs out to meet his friend James (Tommy Flanagan), skipping rocks by the mucky, polluted Glasgow canal near their homes. The boys fight, throwing mud and dunking each other. Only Ryan never comes up.

Thus marks the feature writing and directorial debut of Lynne Ramsay, a serious talent to watch. Ratcatcher is an unforgettable, haunting film with a daring immediacy that finds poetry in ugliness and decay. The film takes place in the early 1970's in Glasgow during a lengthy garbage strike that leads to rotting piles of trash lining the streets and yards. Oh, and there's rats; lots of rats both living and dead.

Though we're introduced to Ryan first, the film begins to follow James after Ryan's death. The effect of this is slightly off-putting, almost like the killing of Janet Leigh after 47 minutes in Psycho (1960). The small details Ramsay gives us in Ryan's life attach us to him rather quickly, and we're shocked to see him go so early. As a result, we come to James a little reluctantly.

We warm to him over time, though, as we find he has a big, giving heart. He spends time with two outcasts, his slightly dim neighbor Kenny (John Miller), with a great love for pet mice, and Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), a girl with such low self-esteem that she allows the local gang of young thugs to sleep with her at their whim. Though it's a mystery how he's able to live with his "crime," he seems to be repenting by donating life energy to these misfits.

James allows himself some alone time as well. When he attempts to follow his older sister on a local bus, he instead finds the new housing developments that he and his family and neighbors are waiting and hoping to get into. Nobody seems to be around, so James spends a boy's day afternoon playing among the half-constructed homes. The afternoon culminates with a romp in a dry grassy field, the perfect backyard.

Though the film is all garbage and squalor, Ramsay evokes some marvelous images and poetry with her incredible editing. When James' mother sees the dead, drowned boy from her window, she's too stunned to let go of her groceries (not sure if it's James lying there). Ramsay cuts to her frozen hands, still clutching the blue plastic bags that are, by now, digging into her palms. Likewise, composer Rachel Portman contributes wonderfully understated score (Ms. Portman has lately been responsible for many awful, giant-sized scores that have drowned out their films, like Chocolat and The Legend of Bagger Vance).

One small complaint, the thick Glasgow English accents require subtitles for us Americans. But these subtitles, which sometimes spell out words phonetically, are just about the worst I've ever seen.

Ratcatcher contains so many other small moments of beauty�James drawing in a pile of spilled salt, Kenny sending his mouse Snowflake to the moon�that I can't mention them all. Many viewers will no doubt find Ramsay's film "depressing," but you just have to know where to look. This is an outstanding feature debut and an amazing film.

DVD Details: Director Lynne Ramsay made one of the great directorial debuts of the 90s with this astonishing portrait of longing in a world of Glasgow squalor. Set during a garbage strike, the story begins when 12 year-old James' best friend drowns in a canal. James tries to keep the incident a secret and continually runs away to explore the grounds of the new public housing he and his family hope to move into. Ramsay works wonders with silence and visual clutter, taking the story into the realm of great gutter poetry. Criterion's excellent disc ($29.95) comes with a video interview with Ramsay and includes her three short films, stills and a trailer.

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