Writer-director Lynne Ramsey’s feature debut is one of those movies which manages to find poetry in grimy surroundings and stunted lives. Set in a Glasgow slum in the 1970s, the film carefully balances turgid reality with abstracted images and episodes of magic realism. Though its meager story often threatens to turn dark and dreadful, it continually pulls back from its worst possibilities, maintaining a tone somewhere between the dour sentimentality of Angela’s Ashes and the flat-out horror of The War Zone. It’s old ground, reworked with imagination and a certain amount of grace.
Our protagonist is 12-year-old James (William Eadie), a useless nub in a blighted landscape, lorded over by distant adults and by bullying older kids, a taciturn “wee man” whose main pastime is watching and waiting. James is surrounded by familiar types, both at home and in his grubby environs. His father is an embittered drunk, his mother long-suffering if not quite saintly; the younger of his two sisters is a thorn in his side, while the older one is starting to mysteriously disappear into her own life. Outside his home, a roaming gang of boys is looking for ways to siphon off their excess pain and boredom.
James is an outcast by dint of his youth and his watchful sensitivity — it’s hard to imagine him growing into one of the casually sadistic teens who torments him. Tentatively he bonds with two fellow outsiders — young Kenny, who lives thoroughly inside a rather impoverished imagination, and 14-year-old Margaret Anne, the sexual target of the bully boys who responds to James’ quiet neediness.
There might have been a time when depictions of dire poverty were striking, but by now it’s well-trod territory, used variously as agitprop, humanistic uplift and/or semidocumentary vérité. Ramsey’s film has elements of all three categories, but her admirable empathy is tempered by her desire to go beyond cliché.
Kenny, who loves animals, is not beyond being cruel to one of his pets if it will gain him some acceptance. James’ father, always teetering on the edge of brutality, commits a selfless act of bravery. And sullen Margaret Anne turns out to have reserves of untapped joy.
Not that the mood strays too far from hopeless (the happy ending may be a dream — it’s hard to tell). As Ratcatcher progresses, so does the sinking feeling that everybody in it is slowly drowning.
What makes it bearable are blessed escapes of the imagination, as in one fantasy sequence when Ramsey, who doesn’t spare us the contemplation of the stagnant, muddy canal where James hangs out, also proves willing to follow a mouse, tied to a balloon, all the way to the moon. It’s a brief respite made exhilarating by the knowledge that we must quickly return to earth.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Friday through Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.