In the first of many self-consciously—but still genuinely—poetic shots in Lynne Ramsay's auspicious directorial debut Ratcatcher, a poor young Glaswegian boy wraps himself in his mother's white drapes like a mummy, as if sensing his premature ossification. His death in a fetid canal a few minutes later is as cruel as it is inevitable, especially in light of other working-class films from Britain, where those who can't sing and dance their troubles away are pummeled by tragedy instead. But just when Ratcatcher seems overly content to bathe in Euro-art squalor, Ramsay counters with passages so breathtakingly lyrical and improbably optimistic that they shake off the oppressive pall that too often passes for hard realism. Much like another recent debut, David Gordon Green's George Washington, Ratcatcher keeps poverty and death omnipresent in its young characters' lives. But both Green and Ramsay prefer to view childhood as a richer experience, rife with moments of humor, tenderness, and offhand beauty. Apart from the opening scenes, which play like a mini-Psycho in introducing and then killing what appears to be the main character, the story is told through the eyes of 12-year-old William Eadie, a tough-minded boy living in a Glasgow apartment block in the early '70s. While a garbage workers' strike leaves piles of stinking refuse to fester in the summer heat, Eadie spends his afternoons at the nearby canal where his friend died earlier as a result of their horseplay. Nagged by occasional feelings of guilt, Eadie skirts a band of young thugs, fosters a tentative relationship with a gawky misfit (Leanne Mullen) with skinned knees, and fantasizes about his family's possible transfer to the countryside. The sunny pastoral scenes, which are all the more gorgeous in contrast to the overcast city gloom, owe a debt to Terrence Malick's Days Of Heaven, as does a magical sequence with a mouse tied to a balloon that uses the same music ("Musica Poetica") as Malick's Badlands. (Coincidentally, George Washington also borrows heavily from Malick.) Ramsay employs these lyrical bits sparingly, as a brief respite from the grim cycle of alcoholism and abuse in Eadie's family. But they make all the difference in setting Ratcatcher apart from other films of its kind, by exploring childhood's vast possibilities. Ramsay's singular obsession with the dreams and traumas of lower-class adolescents was first developed in three outstanding short films, which have been included on the new DVD. A photographer first and a filmmaker second, Ramsay makes ideal use of snapshot portraiture in 1995's Small Deaths, 1996's Kill The Day, and 1997's Gasman, scrapping formal stories in favor of small, vibrant impressions of everyday life. Her interest in children trapped in urban squalor never wavers, but she makes the most of a limited palette.
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