The first shot is a looming white. Then, a white window sash and white mullions frame a cold, milky sky. A white drape hung from above shrouds the head of a spinning boy, its lace twisting in silent slow motion. Children’s laughter outside punctuates his revolutions. The white cloaks his closed eyes like a bridal veil or christening bonnet. He seems to swirl underwater, though the sun illuminates the crown of his skull. A rap from a hand of a body offscreen ends his dervish daydream. “For God’s sake, look at the state of my curtain,” says a 30-something woman. To the upper right of the frame, “Ratcatcher” appears in small black font. The tulle unspools at regular speed.
So starts Lynne Ramsay’s 1999 debut film, and arguably one of the masterpieces of 20th-century depictions of childhood poverty. The curtained boy, Ryan Quinn (Thomas McTaggart), will only appear onscreen for five minutes before he drowns in the canal outside the public housing block he shares with his single mother, Jackie Quinn. Set in 1973, during one of many Glasgow “dustmen strikes,” when trash piled up for months until at last Army tanks rolled in to clear it, Ratcatcher is the very rare film that reflects poverty sans a single scrap of sentimentality or fleeting whiff of sensationalism. Newly restored to 4k resolution, and screening through today at the Lincoln Center, Ramsay’s image-rich tribute to childhood offers a poetic glimpse of the joys — and brutality — of innocence in a world literally crawling with vermin.
Played by non-traditional actors, the children of Ratcatcher are key. We perceive their polluted, close-knit community through their eyes, ears, and fingertips. We observe the state’s neglect of their housing project as they do: paint peels on the stairwells, mice crawl from the floor boards, rubbish sacks multiply like black, bursting malignant cells. At the same time, hopscotch chalk brightens the sidewalk, a soccer ball rolls between outgrown shoes, a mouse underfoot is briefly befriended, offered a sliver of government cheese. A young girl transforms a clothesline into a thrilling rope swing, eats an ice cream cone atop a trash-bag throne. Rat catching becomes a daily sport for anyone over the age of five. But rather than prompt us to gape at or pity the children, or their beleaguered parents, Ratcatcher asks us to reckon with the dignity and complexity of each life, however fragile, however seemingly debased; we are implored to witness, and cherish, the beauty amid the bleak.
While Ryan’s death haunts the narrative, the plot plays second fiddle to mise-en-scene and character depth. Twelve-year-old protagonist James Gillespie (William Eady) is a keen, quiet type, if occasionally rowdy. How could he know when he dunked Ryan in the water that his friend would never pull himself out? And yet why did he decide not to look back when his friend didn’t follow him home? Presumably, none of the children — or their parents — have ever been taught to swim. The canal serves as both a play space and an untimely grave, a metonym for the ever-present perils of simply being poor.
But of course, what appears simple, even inevitable, is hardly such. Decisions have been made by those in charge, who are rarely, if ever, present onscreen. The Gillespie family, like many tenants, listlessly hopes that someday they will be rehoused in a new unit with modern toilets and running water. In the meanwhile, sons and daughters are trained to lie to the social workers who sporadically show up at the door; in the case of James and his two sisters, Ma (Mandy Matthews) and Da (Tommy Flanagan) are invariably “out” — at the store, at the pub, at any place, but never at the site of a steady job.
Da’s alcoholism is chronic; Ma does her best to keep order in the home. James’s little sister, Ann-Marie (Lynne Ramsay, Jr., the director’s daughter), is a relentlessly cheerful tattletale. A roaming pack of teenage boys torments James and his older friend Margaret-Anne (Leanne Mullen), who eventually administers sexual favors to the group out of tedium as much as fear. “You wanna touch it?” she asks James in an early scene, gesturing toward the nascent scab on her bloodied knee. James does, but doesn’t dare to, later offering, as an unusual form of courtship, to instead comb the nits from her tangled hair.
The sexual-yet-innocent friendship depicted between the pair is among Ramsay’s most shocking achievements — shocking because their sexuality is, almost miraculously, never exploited for shock value. James and Margaret Anne are allowed to have curious, sexual bodies without these bodies being sexualized. In the single scene in which they appear naked, after James applies lice treatment, it’s as though the camera is doing everything possible to neutralize the visual content. In a three-quarters shot capturing her body from the elbows down, Margaret Anne methodically undresses for a bath, facing away from the lens. To her right, James stares down at the bar of medicinal soap in his hands, stealing the occasional glance. As he disrobes and enters the bath to better wash her hair, a water fights ensues, each lathering the other’s mane to form mohawks. “I need a pee,” she declares, stepping out to use to the toilet. James continues to splash water her way, chortling at the sound of her urination. In the last shot, she is laughing back, the frame deliberately excluding her breasts.
As invisible as the lice culled from the children’s heads, the state’s power — or perhaps, more accurately, its abdication of power — lurks beneath. No adult or child in the housing project is blamed or demonized for their miserable conditions, nor are the self-medicating methods through which the characters might live to see another day. “Although neither side is willing to say so openly,” announces the reporter on Margaret Anne’s television screen, in an accent so crisp, so English, it is astonishing to think they are from the same country, “it’s clear that it was the threat to bring in troops that made the strike leaders back down. Clearing up this mess will mean thousands of pounds in bonuses and overtime for the dustmen, compensating them for the nine weeks they’ve been on strike.”
James and Margaret Anne watch the midday news hour from the sofa, eating slices of white bread in their clashing bath towels. They say nothing and blink in unison; what the tube depicts has nothing to do with them, even though, of course, it has everything to do with them. Throughout Ratcatcher, the public housing tenants are not actively indignant to systemic injustice, but rather willfully indifferent, knowing nothing that they do or say can make a dramatic difference. In the context of the film, such ghastly disenfranchisement grants a kind of innocence, or at least inculpability, when it comes to the outcomes of their individual lives.
For American audiences — for whom cinematic representations of white urban (or suburban) poverty are pathetically rare, for whom class is but a permeable boundary for anyone with talent or a good work ethic — Ratcatcher’s outright refusal to moralize or platitudinize about the poor might prove downright unsettling. In this way, Ramsay laid the groundwork for films like Sean Baker’s 2017 The Florida Project, which chronicles the experiences of young girl living with her sex-worker mother in a motel outside Disney World.
As in The Florida Project, a child’s power to dream up a world more wondrous and welcoming than the one that exists is central to Ratcatcher’s ethos — no more evident than in a delightfully disjunctive scene involving a white mouse and a red balloon that not only escapes the housing project, but departs from planet earth entirely. Ramsay has herself shirked the assumption that the film’s grim presentation of poverty necessarily warrants a verité label. “A lot of people have misconstrued this film as social realism and I don’t think it is,” she told IndieWire in 1999. “I try to avoid some of the cliches of that. To be honest, I was trying to go into the psychology of the scenes, going into why we’re shooting this way, why we’re looking at it that way, trying to get under the skin of it a bit, inside the boy’s [James’s] head.”
In Ratcatcher’s chimerical final scene, as gorgeous as it is devastating, the Gillespie family marches across an open field, the same field on the outskirts of town to which James has fled prior to visiting a vacant housing construction site. The barley rustles as Da leads the way, hoisting a small white sofa. Ma carries a white doll house. The white sky fills with birds. Near the back of the line, Anne-Marie stares down at a mirror that catches the glint of her face in the sun. Behind her, her brother sets down a chair and watches his loved ones make their way toward the promise of a better home. For the first time in the movie, James opens his mouth to smile.
Ratcatcher is available to stream on Criterion.
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