The foreground is imminent white. Next, a white window frame and white mullions frame a cold milky sky. A white sheet hanging above wraps the head of a spinning boy, its lace twisting in silent slow motion. The laughter of children outside punctuates its revolutions. White covers her closed eyes like a wedding veil or a baptismal cap. He appears to be swirling underwater, although the sun shines on the crown of his skull. A helping hand from an off-screen body ends his dervish reverie. “For God’s sake, look at the condition of my curtain,” said a woman in her thirties. At the top right of the frame, “Ratcatcher” appears in small black type. The tulle unwinds at regular speed.
So begins Lynne Ramsay’s first film in 1999, and arguably one of the masterpieces of 20th century portrayals of child poverty. Curtain Boy Ryan Quinn (Thomas McTaggart) will only appear onscreen for five minutes before he drowns in the canal outside the public housing block he shares with his single mother, Jackie Quinn. Located in 1973, during one of the many “strikes by garbage collectors ”, when the garbage piled up for months until the army tanks finally arrived to clean it up, Rat hunter is the very rare film that reflects poverty without a single bit of sentimentality or a fleeting whiff of sensationalism. Recently restored to 4K resolution, and screened today at Lincoln Center, Ramsay’s pictorial tribute to childhood offers a poetic glimpse into the joys – and brutality – of innocence in a world literally teeming with vermin.
Played by non-traditional actors, the children of Rat hunter are the key. We perceive their polluted and tight-knit community through their eyes, ears and fingertips. We observe the state’s neglect of their housing project the way they do: paint peels off in stairwells, mice crawl on floor planks, trash bags are multiplying like black malignant cells and dazzling. At the same time, hopscotch chalk lights up the sidewalk, a football rolls between undersized shoes, a mouse underfoot briefly befriends itself, offers itself a piece of government cheese. A young girl turns a clothesline into a throbbing swing, eats an ice cream cone atop a trash bag throne. Catching rats is becoming a daily sport for anyone over the age of five. But rather than inciting us to be speechless or pity the children, or their beleaguered parents, Rat hunter asks us to take into account the dignity and complexity of each life, however fragile it may be, even seemingly degraded; we are implored to be witnesses and to cherish the beauty in the midst of the darkness.
As Ryan’s death haunts the narrative, the plot plays a secondary role in the staging and depth of the characters. Twelve-year-old protagonist James Gillespie (William Eady) is a lively and calm type, albeit rowdy at times. How could he know by dipping Ryan in the water that his friend was never going to make it? And yet why does he have decide not look back when his friend hasn’t followed him home? Presumably none of the children – or their parents – ever learned to swim. The canal serves as both a play area and an untimely tomb, a metonym for the ever-present dangers of simply being poor.
But of course, what seems simple, if not inevitable, is hardly. The decisions were made by those in charge, who are rarely, if ever, onscreen. The Gillespie family, like many tenants, hope one day to be relocated to new accommodation with modern toilets and running water. In the meantime, sons and daughters are trained to lie to social workers who sporadically show up at the door; in the case of James and his two sisters, Ma (Mandy Matthews) and Da (Tommy Flanagan) are invariably “out” – at the store, at the pub, anywhere, but never at the job site. stable.
Da’s alcoholism is chronic; Ma is doing her best to keep order in the house. James’ little sister, Ann-Marie (Lynne Ramsay, Jr., the director’s daughter), is a story of relentless merriment. A pack of wandering teenagers torments James and his older friend Margaret-Anne (Leanne Mullen), who ends up administering sexual favors to the group out of boredom as much as out of fear. “Do you want to touch it? She asks James in a first scene, pointing to the incipient crust on his bloodied knee. James does, but dares not, propose later, as an unusual form of courtship, to comb out the nits of his matted hair instead.
The sexual but innocent friendship portrayed between the two is one of Ramsay’s most shocking accomplishments – shocking because their sexuality is, almost miraculously, never exploited for shock purposes. James and Margaret Anne are allowed to have curious sexual bodies without these bodies being sexualized. In the single scene where they appear naked, after James applies lice treatment, it’s as if the camera is doing everything possible to neutralize the visual content. In a three-quarter-length shot capturing her elbows down, Margaret Anne methodically undresses for a bath, facing the camera. To his right, James looks at the bar of medicinal soap in his hands, stealing the peek every now and then. As he undresses and steps into the bath to wash her hair better, a water fight ensues, each lathering the other’s manes to form mohawks. “I need to pee,” she says as she steps out to use the bathroom. James keeps running her water, chuckling at the sound of her urination. In the last shot, she laughs back, the frame deliberately excluding her breasts.
As invisible as the lice removed from the heads of children, the power of the state – or perhaps, more precisely, its abdication of power – lurks beneath. No adult or child in the Housing Project is blamed or demonized for their miserable conditions, nor are the self-medication methods the characters might live to see another day. “Although neither side wants to say it so openly,” announces the journalist on Margaret Anne’s television screen, in an accent so bright, so English, it is astonishing to think that they are from the same country. , “It is clear that it was the threat of bringing in troops that made the strike leaders retreat. Cleaning up this mess will mean thousands of pounds in bonuses and overtime for the garbage collectors, compensating them for the nine weeks. that they have been on strike.
James and Margaret Anne watch the midday news from the sofa, eating slices of white bread from their clashing towels. They say nothing and blink in unison; what the tube portrays has nothing to do with them, although of course it has everything to do with them. All along Rat hunter, tenants of public housing are not actively outraged by systemic injustice, but rather willfully indifferent, knowing that nothing they do or say can make a dramatic difference. In the context of the film, such appalling denial of the right to vote confers a sort of innocence, or at least blame, when it comes to the results of their individual lives.
For American audiences – for whom cinematic representations of white urban (or suburban) poverty are pathetically rare, for whom class is but a permeable boundary for anyone with talent or a good work ethic – Rat hunterThe categorical refusal to moralize or platitude about the poor could prove downright disturbing. In this way, Ramsay laid the groundwork for movies like Sean Baker’s 2017. The Florida Project, which recounts the experiences of a young girl living with her sex worker mother in a motel outside of Disney World.
A sin The Florida Project, the power of a child to imagine a more wonderful and welcoming world than the one that exists is at the heart of Rat hunterthe ethics of – no more evident than in a delightfully disjunctive scene involving a white mouse and a red balloon that not only escapes the housing project, but moves away from planet Earth altogether. Ramsay herself sidestepped the assumption that the film’s grim presentation of poverty necessarily warrants a label of truth. “A lot of people have misinterpreted this movie as social realism and I don’t think that’s the case,” she said. IndieWire in 1999. “I try to avoid certain clichés. To be honest, I was trying to get into the psychology of the scenes, to explain why we shoot this way, why we look at him this way, trying to get into the skin a little bit, inside the boy. [James’s] to manage.”
In Rat hunterThe chimerical final scene of, as magnificent as it is devastating, the Gillespie family walks through an open field, the same field on the outskirts of town where James fled before visiting a vacant housing construction site. Barley rustles as Da leads the way, hoisting up a small white sofa. My door is a white dollhouse. The white sky fills with birds. Near the back of the line, Anne-Marie looks at a mirror which captures the radiance of her face in the sun. Behind her, her brother sets down a chair and watches her loved ones move towards the promise of a better home. For the first time in the film, James opens his mouth to smile.
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