Bird Watching – Lynne Ramsay’s “Ratcatcher”
There are many films that rest on the premise that people are awful to each other. Sometimes these films can be difficult to watch. The most difficult ones, for me, are the ones that show how awful children and adolescents can be to each other. In Ratcatcher (1999), from writer/director Lynne Ramsay, there are story threads to this end that absolutely broke my heart—especially as they contrast with moments of genuine kindness and connection, that always end up pushed aside because of group social pressure. Childhood looked at without a lens of nostalgia can be brutal.
The events of Ratcatcher take place in Glasgow in 1973. This is one of those period pieces that convinces the viewer so truly that we’re looking at the time in question, it’s almost hard to believe it’s a period piece at all. Granted, I have never been to Glasgow in 1973. I wouldn’t notice if a detail was off here or there. But the overall feeling of our setting is so encompassing, I’d bet that the details are spot-on. Two interesting events are coming together in the poorer section of the city: the garbage collectors are on strike, and the government is in the middle of surveying the locals for the city’s re-development program, which involves moving families out of the worst of the housing conditions into new construction. The characters we’ll follow most closely seem both matter-of-fact about their current circumstances and hopeful for the future. The children play among the piling bags of garbage as if they’re just another thing to explore, the multiplying rats and mice just more things to play with.
The film pulls a very surprising and affecting turn of events within its first few minutes. We open with a scene between a boy of about ten or so, Ryan, and his mother. She’s getting him ready to go to a visit to his father’s. He doesn’t want to go, and runs down to the nearby canal, where through his window he’s seen a friend of his playing. Ryan’s friend, James, who is probably a couple of years older, pushes him into the canal. The two start tussling and throwing mud at each other, in a good-natured, boys-being-boys kind of way. But then Ryan holds James’s head under the water, and James gets angry and shoves him harder than before. Ryan goes under the water and doesn’t come up. Instead of diving under or calling for help, James panics and runs away. A few moments later, we see that three men have pulled Ryan’s body from the canal.
I knew nothing about this film when I started it, and the death of this little boy within five minutes of the film’s start—a boy I had assumed from the opening scene would be the main character—stunned me. It set me up to understand that this film would be both unpredictable and uncompromising. James becomes our main focus. The actor, William Eadie (who seems never to have been in another film), superbly captures James’s particular brand of guilt, which mostly manifests in waves of discomfort when he crosses paths with Ryan’s devastated parents. Otherwise, though, life trudges on. And it’s not long before the older boys James tries to get in with, a group of might-as-well-be-nameless 15- or 16-year-olds, start making jokes about pushing each other in the canal to drown, pulling a “Ryan Quinn.”
These older boys may let James hang out, but his one real friend is Kenny, a boy his own age who’s completely ignorant of the social mire that surrounds him, innocently absorbing himself in catching mice and fish, and talking about animals in general. Kenny would do well to have a more heroic, defensive friend than James can make himself be, and one scene in which this gang of boys harass Kenny provides as much tension as anything I’ve ever seen. The boys also inflict their damage on a girl their own age, Margaret Anne. They use her for sex in the most mind-numbing way, showing up at her doorstep or pulling her into a shed as a group, giggling horribly all the time. James watches in a combination of horror and fascination. The film doesn’t explore how this abusive arrangement got started, why Margaret Anne goes along with it somewhat silently, or whether she always did. One can be sure that she’s not having fun like those boys are, though, no matter how casually she tries to act about it. James seems to see this, and the two strike up an individual friendship. The development of their rather bizarre relationship provides the most intriguing storyline in the film. You can feel that, even if it’s odd by convention, in this environment one has to cling to any real connection that comes along.