One of the more inventive things about the beginning of Lynn Ramsay’s Ratcatcher is that it managed to subvert my own assumptions about the early staging of a story of a young central character. The first kid that popped on screen in this movie was a handsome young man with blondish hair, the kind of kid you’d expect most people to cast in the leading role of a film. Even his name, Ryan Quinn, is that of a hero. As he ditches his mother and goes in the back near the canal to play with his friend, I found myself settling in. Essentially, the thoughts that here’s the central character of our story; we’ve already built his relationship with mother (she doesn’t have much control over him) and now he’s with his scrawny, big eared weird looking friend, perhaps the proverbial ‘sidekick’, goofing around. What I didn’t expect was the scene to end with Quinn’s death, drowning in the canal accidentally after horse-playing, and James Gillespie, the scrawny and weak-looking supposed sidekick, now becomes the central figure in our story.
Throughout the rest of the film, I found myself again being subverted from my own clichéd assumptions about a story which clearly plots itself as a bildungsroman (coming-of-age story). This is why Ratcatcher is so remarkable. There’s hardly a moment in the movie in which I just knew what was going to happen next. Cinema about children is often confused with children’s cinema, and in the same sense, the narrative structure of such cinema is easily stacked into cemented bricks of clichés. The arch of overcoming the doldrums and destitute existence of underprivileged youth is bread and butter for the coming-of-age tale, but Lynn Ramsay clearly has other ideas.
Her story is set in Scotland during the Garbage Strike, a very conscious choice, as piles of garbage stack up on the sides of the road, in apartment courtyards, and inside of homes. The strike signifies the metaphorical lawlessness of the land, wherein the despicable and derogatory acts of the children go unnoticed in a bleak, almost post-apocalyptic setting. It is a time when children, especially one like James who’s home-life is comprised of a stepfather who treats him like a bastard child, and a mother who heeds beck and call to her borderline abusive boyfriend to the detriment of her own kin, James, are thrust into an unforgiving world and forced to swim. The idea of ‘maturation’ which is the stamp of approval for most adolescent stories is almost laughable here. Perhaps in the cozy quarters of one’s middle-class suburban life, dealing with the facts of life can be hard and maturation of character signals the success of the individual having grown up (come of age), but in Ratcatcher, the holding on of sanity and morality for James, who witnesses the girl he loves, Margarete Ann, getting gang-raped over and over by older kids, having to hide and bury the guilt of having been involved in the death of Ryan Quinn in the canal, and the continuous neglect of his parents, is an impossible battle in and of itself . The depravity that James succumbs to both outside and inside the walls of his home is in many cases, a fight for maintaining his innocence, a fight against growing up, because if the truth of the world is this horrifying, then why accept it? ‘Maturation’ seems almost like giving up.
At the same time, what really magnifies this depravity is the few sequences of utter relief and beauty within the film, most notably when James hitches a busride with money he steals from his stepdad, and travels to the last bus-stop far away from his neighborhood. He sees empty houses, many of them newly built and untouched, surrounded by a golden wheat-field that shimmers in a stunning sunlight. It is here we see James smile genuinely for the first time. The second sequence is the surreal moment in which James’ animal-loving friend Kenny, ties his pet rat to a balloon and sets it afloat in the air. We see the mouse go up and the camera cuts to a shot of the rat attaining orbit in outer space. It’s a feel-good moment, one in which we envision along with the children an escape from their grounded desperation, a place where all the garbage rats get together, near a crater on the moon and happily socialize with each other. It’s a literally other-worldly scene, soon cut short later by James, at the brink of hopelessness, telling Kenny that his rat is not in outer-space but is in fact, dead. Kenny, out of frustration brings up the death of Ryan Quinn as James fault, a brutal stab back in James’ direction snapping the last straw in half.
I was reminded of similar other films which depicted in rather matter-of-fact detail the uncompromising lives of kids in destitute situations, namely the early films of Harmony Korine. In Gummo and the controversial Kids, which Korine scripted, the children were abjectly cruel, again, signaled by a seemingly post-apocalyptic setting such as “the recent tornado” which devastated Xenia, Ohio in Gummo. Unlike Korine’s movies however, which tend to revel and take a perverse joy in their lawlessness, Lynn Ramsay’s Ratcatcher remarks on the tragedy of youth as a fight against coming-of-age. It subverts the bildungsroman to suggest that James’ situation, which forced him to mature, lead to his own self-destruction; that his resistance, his naïveté, was what was keeping him alive. He did not feel the utter heartbreak of watching Margarete Anne getting gang-raped until he found love for the first time. He didn’t truly feel loneliness until his friends betrayed him. He did not truly feel guilt until Ryan Quinn’s mother cried over her son’s death on the sidewalk and offered James his old shoes. He did not understand the difficulty of escape until he bought his own bus-ride out of town to a better place. These moments ironically, signaled the maturity of our central character, and yet, were stepping stones to his own demise, his own hopelessness. It is why Ratcatcher is a painfully honest, and remarkable subversion, from beginning to end, of the coming-of-age cliché. It tests our own maturity as film-watchers, film-appreciators, to how we can react to a movie which refuses to treat us like children.