Finally catching up with the rest of Lynne Ramsay’s (tragically thin) catalog, after years of appreciating her breakout feature We Need to Talk About Kevin as one of the best films of the 2010s, has revealed an aspect of her work I did not expect would define her aesthetic: grime. You can catch a glimpse of the immersive filth & despair central to Ramsay’s work in the hypnotic tomato festival opening of We Need to Talk About Kevin, but it does not command the remainder of the picture in the way it does with her previous efforts. To that point, I’ve previously described her grief-rattled indie drama Morvern Callar as feeling “less like an original screenplay than it does like a feature adaptation of a crumpled-up Polaroid Ramsey found in a sewer.” To my naïve surprise, Ramsay’s debut film proved to be even grimier, sinking its yellowed teeth into the audience with a punishing immersion in dispiriting filth & despair to the point where the movie is explicitly about squalor. Ratcatcher is a nasty, unforgiving vision from a director who’s unafraid to lunge at her audience’s throat, a ferocious talent who’s been afforded too few opportunities to choke the life out of us & shove our face in the dirt. Weirdly enough, it’s also her most tender film to date, if not only for one brief gasp of lyricism that offers a rare fresh breath of escape.
Part of the reason the punishing grime of Ratchacher lands with such a convincing thud is that it’s used to detail the poverty-stricken lives of cinema’s most taboo targets: children. Telegraphing a kids-lyrically-transcending-their-grimy-environment genre that would eventually be solidified in titles like George Washington, Beasts of the Southern Wild, American Honey, and The Florida Project, Ratchacher mostly immerses its narrative in a community of disenfranchised children running wild in a rundown 1970s Glasgow tenement. Kids are interchangeable and, to some degree, disposable in this dilapidated environment, which lacks proper utilities like plumbing, hot water, trash service, etc. With the housing facilities condemned and the community being gradually transported to a new, plastic-wrapped tenement, one family waits for their turn to be transported as their neighbors disappear and the trash piles up. A roving gang of bullies beat the trash piles with sticks, looking for rats to kill, and treat fellow children with the same brutish curiosity. Cheap beer & television serve as minor escapist pleasures as the central family waits for things to get better. Their lives continue to rot instead. Grief over an early fatal mistake plagues the house just as much as the rats & stench of trash. The childhood play that fills the remaining days before the big move resembles murderous violence more each second.
Ratcatcher was met with enthusiastic festival circuit accolades, but saw no theatrical distribution before being acquired by Criterion for home release. It’s difficult to imagine the film being a commercial success even if it did reach a wide audience, though, even if marketed as a nasty punk version of Stand by Me. There is one lyrical sequence of mind-blowing sci-fi absurdity that completely distorts its stuck-in-squalor existentialism, but for the most part the film is relentlessly dour in a way that’s antithetical to the possibility of being a crowd-pleaser. The Scottish accents are so thick they almost require subtitles. Children smear each other in filth and call each other “fucking bastards” with alarming ferociousness. The few trips outside the squalid tenement setting is just an endless parade of uncollected, festering trash. Ratcatcher is the ultimate submersion in Lynne Ramsay’s auteurist vision of a grimy, unforgiving world. She may have since found a more propulsive, narrative-focused method of dragging audiences through these grime-coated environments, but making us sit in the filth to watch children rot was a hell of a way to start her career. It’s not surprising that when other directors followed with their own children-in-poverty narratives like Beasts of the Southern Wild, they decided to lean into the lyricism of the Ratcatcher’s sole moment of sci-fi escapism. The film that surrounds that moment is downright suffocating, admirably so.