Within the world of Ratcatcher, Lynne Ramsay’s debut film set during the Glasgow dustmen strike of 1973, nothing is quite as it appears. Yards and sidewalks act as landfills. Housing units have become way-stations as tenants await new schemes. The canal that runs along the developments keeps taking kids from a world that’s become an abject representation of a low-income reality. It’s a world that’s as stark and barrenly impoverished as it is fantastical, where mice can fly to the moon and boys can own tigers and bears.
Though Ramsay, whose three short films Small Deaths (1995), Kill the Day (1996), and Gasmen (1997) proceed Ratcatcher thematically, never nestles too far into the surrealistic journey of adolescence, understanding that for the children of Glasgow, growing up is done between the rot and decay of ordinary life; never on top of it. And like the rodents that are seemingly born from the refuse, and equally the perch that team the canal, they must find means of survival, because for Ramsay’s characters, escape is as much a necessity as it is an idea.
There’s an achingly quiet moment early on that shows a rather omnipresent James (played by Willem Eadie) slowly pick away at his mother’s stocking, as if consuming the fabric that keeps her working class femininity intact. Shortly after we observe her sowing the seam back together, depicting both the family’s hardships through the necessity of this lone stocking as well as the necessity to stitch the destructive patterns of adolescence back together.
It’s a scene that follows the death of Ryan (Thomas McTaggart), a young boy who slips away from his mother in order to go play by the canal with James. There’s a sense of parental detachment within the confines of Glasgow, though it’s hardly a freedom that comes without a price, seen through the eyes of James as he grapples with the guilt of Ryan’s death. He and the other kids seem imprisoned between the slum of their home and the canal, which holds a kind of lifeline to mortality, taking lives whenever they dare get too close. These waters test their own limits, running only as far as one is willing to go before needing to turn back out of an inability to survive outside of these limits; limits that are tested between each other.
The older boys spend their days tramping up and down the canal like the carnivorous fish that line the depths, feeding off the innocence of James, his friend Kenny (John Miller), and reserved Margaret Anne (Leanne Miller), whose own innocence has been robbed from her through sexual acts; acts that are now offered as a means of living through this oblivion. That is until she meets James, who unwittingly gives Margaret Anne an opportunity to channel his own purity, one that flows like the waters of the canal, becoming devastatingly murkier and seemingly distant by the day.
They both test the waters of their own vulnerability, as seen when they strip naked and take a bath together that proves their innocence still floats, as they quickly lose themselves to the giddiness of youths fleeting existence. Margaret Anne sees James as a savior, a sort of bridge that spans the width of the canal that might possibly allow her a path over the very thing that has swept her youth away. Unbeknownst to her, James is unable to be her savior, as his own need to survive washes over the very link that tethers them together. Unable to act, he looks on as the fish pick apart what is left of Margaret Anne’s innocence, an act that will eventually leave behind another body by the canal.
What interests Lynn Ramsay though, isn’t so much the derelicts of Glasgow, but the way it consumes those around it. This is evident, not only in the canal itself, but the way the imagery of the outside world floats in like a curtain caught in a breeze. When James hops on a bus out of town, he’s met with another (or possibly the same) canal; except this channel never reaches up to take him away, only guiding him further away from his life.
Instead of sealed garbage bags, open fields of grass roll across the grounds of this outside world. When he does stumble across the fields and into an abandoned house, Ramsay and cinematographer Alwin Kuchler, who would later show a similar expansiveness with Hanna, capture the sweeping browns and golds of what might as well surmount to a dream.
Though with any dream, James must wake up, back into a world that’s stacked with trash bags that act as breeding grounds for vermin. And like James and Kenny, the rats must survive through the cracks and crevices of their world, chased to the top of theirs where they are harassed for what they’re worth. Except the rats of Ramsay’s Glasgow share a commonality with their tormenters in that they both feed off each other’s need.
Where the rats feed off their disposed need for food, James feeds off Kenny’s ability to dream, and Margaret Anne’s need to feel loved, even if it is a futile endearment. She tells James that she loves him, and maybe she does, but ultimately she needs someone to say it to in order to feel that there’s something else out there besides cruelty. James, willfully detached from the concept of adolescent love, needs a place to bury and conceal his profusion of guilt for an act that he thinks has gone unnoticed.
Except his act by the canal doesn’t just survive within him, but within his environment; living through the transparency of the housing units. Much of Ramsay’s lens peers out through the windows of the dilapidated homes, watching and observing the confines that only appear to become smaller as the city’s trash remains steadfast. Even in James’ excursion out to the fields, we observe him through the abandoned homes window, as if we live where he desires; safe and removed from the abject poverty, because just as much as James is a character, so too is Ramsay’s habitat.
Because just like the Scottish dialect, their environment is intrinsically linked within the people of Glasgow, a part of their DNA that if removed, will still remain as a definitive structure of their existence. And like the dialect, it’s one that we as outsiders can only perceive and regard, never quite being able to consume it the way they consume, ultimately disposing its remains the way the canal disposes of them.
Once the city workers finally remove the trash that has kept hidden what many sought not to confront – hardship, abuse, isolation and ultimately grief, James realizes how exposed and forlorn he really is between the stacks of homes that loom over him, and as he reopens the hole in the same pair of his mother’s stocking, he realizes that to survive means confronting his guilt, and confronting his guilt means bearing more than he has, and maybe ever will.
Because on his own, like with Margaret Anne who bares her legs abjectly and not willingly, there is no stocking to pick at, forcing James to brave the canal that represents his all-consuming grief. And in the end of Ratcatcher, as he seemingly floats to the bottom of its waters, James realizes that he really only knows how to consume, and that perhaps the greatest means of survival is letting go.