Written & Directed by Lynne Ramsay
Western civilization is decaying and all at its own hand. You cannot look to a foreign enemy emerging over the horizon. The collapse of the world order we’ve known since birth was a slowly festering movement of austerity and neoliberalism that is choking the life out of hundreds of millions. The authoritarian British government brutalized its citizens in Northern Ireland and Scotland quite habitually in the 1960s and 70s. This came in the form of militarized police actions, pushing back against unions, and fighting against a higher quality of life. This is the world we enter in Lynne Ramsay’s Ratcatcher, where garbage is piled up on the streets and canals are full of toxic chemicals. This is squalor inflicted on working people by the wealthy & powerful who want to bring them to heal. It’s hard to find hope in such a living Hell.
James is an older boy living in a crowded Glasgow neighborhood. He ends up wrestling with his friend Ryan at the canal, which leads to a deadly accident. Ryan drowns, and James knows he is partially responsible. Unfortunately, no one witnessed this, so he just goes on with his life, hoping he can forget it all. This experience causes James to become more observant of the world he’s grown up in, suddenly seeing the horrible brutality his neighbors visit on each other that serves no purpose. He befriends Margaret Anne, an older girl habitually raped by a local gang of teens, and she believes she deserves this treatment. James also spends time with Kenny, another little boy obsessed with animals and dreams of becoming a zookeeper. There are moments of joy and beams of light that breakthrough from time to time, but James quickly comes to realize conditions will never be allowed to get better in his community, that those in power simply do not care about them.
Ramsay’s work often concerns itself with the conflict between childhood innocence and violent realities. You can see this in the form of the guilt-panicked mother Eva feels in We Need to Talk About Kevin and the crippling trauma hitman Joe carries with him in You Were Never Really Here. The director shows a profound understanding of how this cannot be represented in dialogue but through images supplementing emotion. The film’s opening frames the drowning as a confusing whirlwind of moments that James doesn’t possess the verbal language to express. It’s seen in the crumbling world he inhabits that no one talks much about; they’ve simply come to accept the decay as the norm.
There is, however, an oasis of sorts. James rides a municipal bus to the end of the line and discovers a more suburban-style neighborhood in the process of being built. The cinematography experiences a dramatic shift, moving from washed-out pale colors to vibrant, hopeful ones. But through James’ play on this worksite, he comes to see how hollow it all is. On the surface, this is a beautiful looking house, but nothing works; in this specific moment, it is a facade, the idea of home not completed.
In a sequence mirroring a similar moment Ramsay would present in You Were Never Really Here, the director plays with ambiguity by returning us to that home, now completed. We see through the window as James and his family walk through a field of golden straw towards their new home. But this is juxtaposed with another moment I won’t spoil that strongly hints this is simply a beautiful dream. There is no lovely new home waiting for this family or any other from their neighborhood. People, they will never meet who live far away have determined the squalor they reside in is acceptable. They won’t improve working conditions or raise wages; they will make sure the people are broken.
James is ultimately unable to make sense of his world, only feeling the raw pain of living in it. The absence of dialogue in many scenes helps to compliment the viewpoint of our child protagonist. He lives among adults who struggle to articulate the state of their world, and so he never has the means to express it himself. His father performs a heroic feat earning himself a medal from the city fathers. Later, his dad holds a little girl’s cat while she gets ice cream from a truck, only for him to be jumped by the teen gangs that roam the neighborhood. He comes home, cut up and bloodied, and lashes out at his wife. Ramsay presents us with the conditions that breed reactionary thought, the rise of fascism where incoherence is used as a weapon against the vulnerable. Victims are turned into victimizers in such a place. James’ dad feels shame & guilt over letting the cat be killed, but he has no avenue of recourse, so he resorts to domestic abuse. His wife accepts it because that was likely what she saw growing up. James observes it in a new light, though, shock and an understanding that he is just the latest in a line of people subjected to suffering in this place.
I appreciate how much Ramsay deconstructs the myth of the innocence of children. At a time when in the States, laws are being passed to shield children from the instruction of history. The people doing this foolishly believe that they can trick children into believing things that are not true about the very world they inhabit. Ramsay sees childhood as a heartbreaking time, a period where this fresh hope that comes into the world with a child is steadily broken down by unfeeling faceless systems that we’ve allowed to tear apart humanity. However, it is not all despair; she always finds some spot of hope in this darkness, even if it is so minuscule as to appear nonexistent. That hope always lies in connection with others, shared traumas, and communities who choose to love each other rather than submit to the cold nature authority wishes to impose upon them.