Thursday, December 8, 2011

Overlooked Gems #16: Ratcatcher

Grade: 78 (B+)

Terrence Malick has become a model for modern independent filmmakers, who follow his precedent of releasing two or three striking features before taking a long period of time on their next. From Spike Jonze to Whit Stillman, several independent filmmakers make a splash and then, for whatever reason, disappear from the forefront. Scottish director Lynne Ramsay followed Malick’s example when she released two highly acclaimed features, 1999’s Ratcatcher and 2002’s Morvern Callar, and then did sweet fuck-all for nearly a decade (her third feature, We Need to Talk About Kevin, comes out this weekend). This can be partly attributed to her aborted plans to adapt Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones into a feature film in the mid-2000s, only to have Peter Jackson release his terrible version in 2009. Jackson’s adaptation focused on all of the wrong things: it was too big, too splashy, and too obsessed with the chance to depict heaven rather than tell a tale of loss. Watching Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, it’s difficult not to yearn for what might have been.

1973: James (William Eadie) is a young boy in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Glasgow. His father is a drunk. His home doesn’t have running water or indoor plumbing. The neighborhood is covered with trash from the sanitation workers’ strike, which has caused an infestation of rats and lice. A gang of older boys terrorize James and other residents. James and his family wait for a state order that would allow them to move in a better neighborhood. One day, James and his friend Ryan are playing in a nearby pond. Ryan is accidentally drowned, and James is wracked with guilt. He finds comfort in imagination, his adventurousness, and a friendship with a gawky older girl.

Ratcatcher sounds like another miserablist piece of poverty porn not unlike several other recent independent films (especially those from Britain). It’s not entirely an unfair accusation. Terrible things happen to James and his family throughout the film, and sometimes Ramsay piles on the misery a little too thick. But for every moment that tries too hard to sell their poverty, there is a lovely, lyrical moment of visual poetry. The earlier comparison to Terrence Malick was apt; like David Gordon Green’s George Washington (a slightly more successful film), Ramsay frames the dilapidated environment with a child’s eye view of curiosity and wonder. It’s almost as if Malick had remade Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy (another Overlooked Gem candidate) in Scotland rather than Ireland (the film even reuses “Musica Poetica” from Malick’s Badlands). James isn’t unaware of his surroundings, but he is a child, and children are resilient beings able to look past their surroundings.

That ability leads to the best sequences in the film, in which James finds joy and comfort in the world. He takes a bus trip to a developing neighborhood, where he finds indoor plumbing and an open field that he plays in. He takes a bath with his older girl friend, in a scene that could be awkwardly sexual but rather highlights their innocence. He imagines his friend Kenny’s mouse Snowball taking a trip to the moon. He, his mother, and his sisters dance to Tom Jones. It makes James’ heartbreak and loss of innocence all the more moving at the film’s deliberately enigmatic climax.

No comments:

Post a Comment