RATCATCHER ** 1/2
DIRECTOR: Lynne Ramsay
RUNNING TIME: 134 minutes
RATING: No rating but PG-13 equivalent for adolescent sex
THE LOWDOWN: Twelve-year old Glasgow boy retreats from his tough life during a garbage strike
There is nothing picturesque or quaint about this Glasgow slum. It's even worse than usual because the sanitation workers are on strike, and bags of stinking garbage are everywhere. The kids have nothing really to play with or play on, so they swing on clotheslines, use garbage bags for soccer balls, play with the rats and each other.
When 12-year-old James roughhouses in the filthy canal with one of his friends, he doesn't even know, at first, that the last innocent schoolboy shove he gave put his friend down in the muck for good. Then the mothers in this project find out that one of their children has drowned.
One of a few understatedly brilliant scenes in Lynne Ramsay's "Ratcatcher" shows us, ever so quietly, when James comes back home after the drowning while his mother stares desolately at the soaked, filthy, retrieved corpse far down in the courtyard. Quietly and with no melodrama whatsoever (in other words, no tearful close-up), she hugs her son for dear life. Until he walked through the door, she feared the dead child was him.
When James is encouraged by older boys to have a go at the 14-year-old neighborhood girl whose wont is to cater serially to the hormonal needs of the neighborhood roughnecks, he sheepishly skulks into her bedroom. In the next shot, we see that all he does is lie, fully clothed, on top of her.
They become friends. They take baths together and use special soap on each other's head lice.
Those are some of the very few scenes that leaven what is, in truth, a very grim and unforgiving film.
Fathers in Ramsay's world are either non-existent or on the couch drooling in a beer-drenched stupor after watching soccer on the telly. They are occasionally allowed a tear of grief or remorse or even a moment of heroism. But in this movie, the male sex - past a certain age - is more verminous than the mice and rats frolicking among the garbage.
It is the world of "Billy Elliott" without talent. Or charm. Or decency. Or, above all, hope.
When James' mother ignores her daughter's plea to play a Tom Jones record and opts, instead, to dance with her kids to Eddie Cochran's "Come On Everybody," you're not seeing the wild release of the kids in "Billy Elliott" but rather the sad last-ditch attempt of a mother to find joy with her children in a world that otherwise offers them none.
It is a distinguishing mark of British filmmaking that they can still make unsparing films there about life conditions on the underside of society. And, in her hard, laconic pseudo-documentary way, Ramsay is nothing if not a talented filmmaker.
But it's the kind of film that's easy to admire and admirable to endorse without, in the slightest, being easy to like. Or, for that matter, even watch.