Before capturing Joaquin Phoenix in the grit, grime, and introspective pain of You Were Never Really Here, Lynne Ramsay assembled a troupe of unknowns and non-actors to bring her solemn debut, Ratcatcher, to life. The film earned Ramsay a BAFTA award for Most Promising Newcomer and a nomination for Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard Award. Ratcatcher follows a brash boy, James, as he navigates a changing Glasgow in 1973. After the accidental death of his friend, Ryan, at a nearby canal, James maneuvers the transitioning world around him, his guilt, and the solemnity of youth.
Ratcatcher insights a contemplative, quiet action in its opening. Ramsay captures the death of Ryan not with words but with imagery galvanizing innocence literally lost. The death of Ryan occurs in the first 10 minutes of the film, and from there, James navigates Glasgow as his community begins to disperse and Ramsay incrementally breaks down his innocence and the loss of it. James lives in a transitioning world, where the trash and grime of Glasgow is being broken down in favor of rebuilding elsewhere.
The housing conditions in Glasgow during the ‘70s were uninhabitable. Often, there was no running hot water, bathing facilities and indoor bathrooms were scarce. As those developments are demolished with the tenants having to relocate to newly established communities, strikes occurred, leaving much of the garbage left to line the streets of the city. James lives in one of the schemes being left behind in ruins, with his neighbors dispersing to new developments. The world as he knows it is breaking down and so he encounters the transition into young adulthood at a sensitive age.
Following James, by bus, to a location where some of these new homes are being built, the boy leaves behind the cluttered, complicated neighborhood and runs freely through fields. Here, confinement of emotion and body isn’t an issue for young James. His curiosity runs rampant through the construction site as if it were a playground. At one point, he walks into a house, the camera capturing James’ eyes looking upward towards something new. He lays back in a bathtub completely wrapped in plastic, where the cleanliness he could enjoy is guarded against him. Even grasping to turn the water on, as if to bathe himself – washing it clean for body and soul. But nothing happens.
Prior to James’ journey, he has been gifted his friend Ryan’s new shoes that his mother had just bought for him prior to his death. Upon stepping into them, there’s a sense that James has taken steps into death – unable to reverse the pain of loss, and the confusion he feels upon losing a friend. It’s never dealt with, but under the eyes of Ramsay is eluded to as an inescapable absolute. This is the world James won’t soon be able to escape. Making the film’s ending all the more powerful.
The final moments of Ramsay’s film capture James plunging himself into the same canal where Ryan died and soon transitions to the open fields the boy ran through and tossed himself in the wheat against clearer skies and warmer hues. It’s a contemplative and ambiguous final sequence where it appears that the confinement James faces can only be released by losing himself to the world that has suffocated him. It’s a somber and sobering finale to a film that tries to allow its main character the space to be a child, to have room to run, but little to deal with the loss of breath because of it.
Ramsay captures this loss all in the gaze of childlike bemusement. There’s no explanation, there’s only earnest, initial reaction. In Ratcatcher, as with her other films, Ramsay allows the image to be the text for audiences to read. Favoring a visual language over a structured script, Ratcatcher explores James’ understanding of the world and the ebbing and flowing of a formidable point in his childhood. Trying to find a balance of solemnity and wonder, Ramsay literally let’s James run free before confining him, again, and asking him to walk in the footsteps of loss and death.
So much of Ramsay’s oeuvre is realized with painstakingly visceral tragedy, injury, and quiet anguish that her first feature merely feels like a footnote to many than a persuasive, confident paragraph of her following features. But in that footnote, Ratcatcher peers through the window of Ramsay’s solemn worlds in a way that feels sobering and sacred. It’s a piece of childhood trauma, not even understood as such by the eyes of James. As his world crumbles around him, and the people in his life leave, James must build a palace in open fields, a safety net for his mind to hold onto that one elusive string that could take him upward: hope and peace.