Film of the Week: “Ratcatcher”

Directed by Lynne Ramsay, Ratcatcher is a film about a twelve years old boy named James (William Eadie), who one day accidentally drowns his friend after the two begin to wrestle in a canal. From thereon, Ramsay focuses on James’ guilt and shame of having run away from the scene, consequently keeping his presence there a secret from everyone around him.

I see Ratcatcher as being about the loss of childhood innocence; this is seen in the action that James partakes in following the death of his friend. He drinks beer, he has sex, he begins to hang out with an older crowd of boys, and finally, he takes the bus alone—all adult activities that distance James further from his childhood.

I argue, however, that James’ loss of innocence is a result of more than just his guilt but also his economical background. Ratcatcher is set in Glasgow, 1973 and aside from James’ personal life, Ramsay also focuses on the world of Ratcatcher; that is, the poor rundown neighborhoods of Glasgow where homes are dilapidated, an overabundance of trash bags fill the street causing an overpopulation of vermin that carry diseases, and the air is hazardous.

One of the sub-plots of Ratcatcher is that James’ family is awaiting approval to be moved to a new home in a new neighborhood, a neighborhood we later see when James decides to take the bus alone. For James, the promise of a new and better neighborhood is also the promise of a new and better life. This theoretical new life is one removed away from the canal which recalls not only the death of James’ friend, thus summoning feelings of guilt and shame, but also symbolizes the poverty and associated grime of the neighborhood. Later on in the film, James’ father rescues a different boy from drowning in the canal and for the rest of the film, he is constantly scratching himself to which his wife surmises that he must have caught something from the canal.

If the canal is the symbol of the loss of innocence and also the poverty of Glasgow, then there does exist an antithesis in the form of a field of wheat near the prospective new neighborhood. Whereas Ramsay visually defines the canal through a darker color palette—brown, gray, and dark blue are used to bring out the filth of the canal—the field of wheat is visually defined by a much brighter color scheme. The field itself is gold, and the sky here is a vibrant blue whereas Glasgow’s appears washed out. In capturing the field, Ramsay also utilizes wide shots giving a sense of freedom and beauty that spatially, isn’t found elsewhere in the film.

James’ arrival to the new neighborhood is brought about on a spur of following his older sister—who is implied to be prostituting herself to help the family make ends meet—and riding the bus for fun, the field of wheat is where he arrives being that it is the last stop. He breaks into one of the homes and it becomes a form of escape from the life of poverty and guilt. James loses himself walking throughout the house, pretending as if it were his own—lying down in the bathtub and urinating in the toilet.

Yet James is ultimately denied that escape. He’ll attempt to go back to the new neighborhood once more only to find that the door has been locked. That lock is physical and metaphorical; James is literally locked from the home but more importantly he is locked away from what the home connotes—cleanliness, freedom, and happiness. To be locked away from the new home then, is to be forced back into a life of poverty and guilt, a life back at the canal. I’ll withhold spoilers since these pieces are meant to recommend the film for new viewers through an analysis, but Ramsay does a mystifying job of capturing this forced return in the film’s climax. You’ll just have to watch it.

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