Ratcatcher (1999) dir. by Lynne Ramsay
Starring Tommy Flanagan, Mandy Matthews and William Eadie
By Blair Stewart
Being a child of the '80s I was deprived of first-hand experiences of the previous decade, but one impression left with me from the '70s is garbage. Rotten, stinking, fetid, obese black plastic bags plump with vermin, spilling their messy guts out of city dustbins over every street. That's the imagery I've taken away from Western cinema during the period with Scorsese's 1976 Manhattan buried under trash (both figuratively and literally) in Taxi Driver, and a refuse-strewn London in the grip of public-works strikes and punk anarchy in Julien Temple's ode to the Sex Pistols with The Filth and the Fury.
Scottish writer/director Lynne Ramsay's own turbulent life experiences included a 1973 sanitation strike while growing up in working class Glasgow. And by 'working class' I mean the dwellers of housing estates, the odourless British euphemism for ghettos. Against the backdrop of poverty Ramsay colours her 1999 near-autobiographical roughneck debut with streaks of childhood bewilderment to salve young James's (William Eadie) dire existence atop playground trash piles.
Da (Tommy Flanagan of Sons of Anarchy recognition) is an unrepentant drunkard through-and-through, while Ma (Mandy Matthews) is tenuously holding her family together with the older sister in the micro-skirt sneaking off for carnal knowledge. Just below their eye line wee James will gain an understanding of death as his playmate drowns in the local open sewer - a more terrible form of adult knowledge known than his elder siblings. The guilt spins James away from his family towards the used neighbourhood bike's comforting arms and the empty outskirts of the city where a better life might come with the construction of nicer housing estates for all. Not exactly the stuff of Wonder Years, but an honest take on systemic rot, and despite a false note in the final scenes, often a superb one.
By occasionally using surreal mise-en-scène Ramsay strips away the brutal reality of U.K. kitchen sink/working class drama covered in the works of Loach, Leigh and Clarke from the protagonist's eyes as he grasps onto his innocence. Ramsay's cast is excellent but nearly unintelligible, their Glaswegian brogue impossible to my Canadian ear, which is saying something since my Mom comes from a bunch of thick old Weegies. Regardless of necessary subtitles, the actors are well chosen and appear as suited to their surrounding in front of the camera as desperate Hollywood starlets in search of spiritual enlightenment in India aren't to theirs.
According to the hallowed annals of the IMDB most of the actors in Ratcatcher haven't made another film, which is a damn shame based on the results. Thankfully, after an eight-year hiatus, Lynne Ramsay returned with last year's controversial We Need to Talk About Kevin.