Lynne Ramsay’s directorial debut film is an unflinching portrait of life in Scotland, perhaps best described as a film that doesn’t ever hold back in its gritty portrait of childhood in Glasgow. But it also doesn’t ever feel like the sort of film that any other filmmaker could ever have made to the same impact on what was only their first try behind the camera, as if I couldn’t have any more reason to admire what it was that Lynne Ramsay managed to create here. Over the years, Ramsay has shown herself to be one among the most distinctive voices behind the camera in recent memory but all of that had to start somewhere and when talking about Ratcatcher, it also gives oneself an idea of what more was to come in the future. This isn’t any ordinary coming-of-age film, it’s a film all about the economy of the time period and it’s made even more haunting by the very means in which Ramsay captures the misery and suffering that made life as she recognized it the way in which it is. Driving upon the styles that were set forward by the kitchen sink dramas of the 1960’s, yet also with a dash of surrealism, Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher is a film all about a generation defined by its own messiness.
Set in Glasgow in 1973, Ratcatcher is a coming-of-age story all about growing up during the national garbage strike – which only adds more to the ugliness that one would expect themselves to see in the world as Lynne Ramsay sees it. Every house still looks like it could easily be an idealized dream, but upon the brink of an economical collapse, it all looks so ugly. There’s no running hot water, indoor toilets available for use, and the lack of garbagemen present would also create a breeding ground for rats – which also pose a great health risk for the people in the area. From the way Lynne Ramsay captures the ugliness of the world, even in an area that could be the nicest place for anyone to live, Ratcatcher never compromises its own vision but that’s also a big part of where the film’s most beautiful aspects can come about. Yet to think about how this was only her feature directorial debut, it’s beyond impressive and exemplifies the efforts of an already established auteur.
This environment is important in shaping the way that her own protagonist sees the world, but even through a young boy’s eyes you’re already seeing a portrait of her own world that reminds oneself of a memory. But these are memories that stick around in the same sense that trauma does. In telling a story of how the young James had grown up in Scotland, Ramsay also captures a beautiful fantasy of some sort, through the contrasting colours of the reality versus the dreams that James experiences, we’re also told a story of how these damaging conditions can end up scarring one for their own life and even drown one out away from the feeling of hope. That’s not to say that Ratcatcher ever finds itself being a hopeless film at all, because it’s actually the very opposite of that, but in its own portrayal of government-influenced despair there’s a heartbreaking tale to be found in Lynne Ramsay’s unflinching first feature.
With a title like “ratcatcher,” one must also imagine what significance do the images of rats have in Lynne Ramsay’s eyes. There’s an image of rats crowded together in one space, but you can also imagine that they’re looking for a means of escaping. Even in a city like Glasgow, the amount of dirt that one would find within the area could even turn these people into a group of rats as they’re caught and trapped within a cage. But in this world, everyone also happens to be treated just like they were rats too which also makes for an incredibly uncomfortable viewing. It’s a film where everything around oneself is so awful to the point where even a glimmer of hope could only be a mere fantasy, but Ramsay still makes it clear that this can still be made into something real. It’s a thought like this that can make Ratcatcher all the more beautiful too, but under Ramsay’s care and the work of cinematographer Alwin Küchler, it sticks out like a dream about one’s own past.
If there’s any other fitting way to capture what makes Ratcatcher so wonderful, it’s the manner in which it sticks around like a memory sticking out like a sore thumb. It’s an honest film about how one’s own environment affects the way in which one ends up seeing the world, but even through the most gritty and dirtiest aspects that Ramsay captures on camera, there’s a part of it that also feels reflective of the concept of a typical suburbia. But most importantly it also captures how a loss of innocence in one can affect their own world too, because no matter what they may try to accomplish they will always find themselves remaining trapped in a world that will only crumble upon them with even more dirt. And in a sense, it’s that which also makes Ratcatcher so much more beautiful, it’s incredibly dirty and revels in all of that too – but it still manages to gain your own sympathy for that very reason.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Pathé.
Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Screenplay by Lynne Ramsay
Produced by Gavin Emerson
Starring William Eadie, Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews
Release Date: November 12, 1999
Running Time: 94 minutes