First-Timers Get Under the Skin


The first image in Ratcatcher, Lynne Ramsay’s haunting evocation of a horrific Glasgow childhood, is of a preadolescent boy wrapping himself in a window curtain as if it could protect him from the toxic world outside. Five minutes later, Ryan is dead—drowned in the brackish canal that’s as close as this poverty-stricken neighborhood comes to a playground. The curtain, in retrospect, seems like his shroud.

Ryan drowns while horsing around in the canal with his friend James (William Eadie). His death is accidental, but James blames himself for pushing Ryan in the water and then running away in a panic; his guilty secret makes an already bleak life more terrible to bear. James is a thin-faced, frail-shouldered boy with clownishly large ears that do nothing to offset the gravity of his demeanor. Ratcatcher, which has the feel of a film made from the inside out, burrows under his skin to the place where perception and imagination meet. If James lives in a world of abjection, he is not an abject character like Bresson’s Mouchette. James’s anger, his emerging sexual desire, his nurturing impulses, and, most of all, his hope of escaping from the darkness to the light keep him from falling victim to his circumstances. But only for so long.

James lives with his parents and two sisters in a dank council flat where the vermin have gotten the upper hand. (Ratcatcher is set during the national garbage strike of the mid ’70s, which made a large number of neighborhoods hazardous for humans but heaven for rodents.) Da (Tommy Flanagan), a bad drunk who, on at least one occasion, hits his wife, is more interested in soccer than his kids, but we’ve seen fathers far worse. Worried and worn though she is, Ma (Mandy Matthews) is still capable of affection. There’s a lovely scene in which she jitterbugs with James, but she lavishes even more attention on him when she combs the lice out of his hair. James, in turn, performs the same service for Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), the slightly older girl he tries to save from the teenage toughs who’ve issued themselves a free pass to her vagina.

Sitting next to Margaret Anne on a stone wall above the canal, James is mesmerized by the angry red scrape on her knee. “Do you want to touch it?” she asks, and James places a tentative hand over the wound. The image is both visceral and suggestive. The bloody skin is a metaphor for the girl’s masochistic sexuality and also for James’s sense of being rubbed raw by life.

Ratcatcher is full of images that are similarly immediate and allusive, their poetry heightened by Ramsay’s elliptical editing style. Ramsay’s short film Gasman (1997) turned on a young girl’s realization that she was not the only object of her father’s affection; it was reminiscent of Jane Campion’s early short films in its combination of anthropological detail with extremely subjective camera angles and editing so fragmented it gave the film the feeling of a dream. In Ratcatcher, Ramsay uses the same film vocabulary in shaping a full-length narrative to a child’s subjective vision. As spare and unflinching as Alan Clarke’s Christine, and as poetic as Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduit, Ratcatcher is a film in which viewers still close to the experience of childhood will be able to recognize themselves. It’s also the most audacious debut feature of the year.

If Ratcatcher is unmistakably an art film (it even has subtitles that translate the Glasgow dialect for American audiences), Tony Barbieri’s first film, One, is the kind of hybrid that too often falls between the cracks. This twisted buddy movie has a hint of Antonioni in its wide-screen compositions, but its blue-collar milieu strips the glamour from alienation.

Once a promising player for a Yankee farm team, Nick (Kane Picoy) destroyed his career by slugging the manager. Now he lives with his parents and works as a garbage collector. When his childhood friend Charlie (cowriter Jason Cairns) is released from jail (he served hard time for assisting the suicide of his terminally ill grandfather), Nick offers him a place to stay. Nick desperately needs to connect emotionally, but Charlie is wary of his friend’s dependence. Feeling abandoned and betrayed when Charlie moves out and gets involved with a woman, Nick turns his anger on himself. Their relationship careers downhill until it’s blown apart by an event no one could have predicted.

Nick and Charlie look enough alike to be brothers, but psychologically they’re the opposites who attract. Charlie seems to have absorbed The Little Engine That Could as a child, but since the film offers almost no information about his upbringing, his optimism and balanced sense of self seem almost as miraculous to us as they do to Nick. In contrast, Nick’s problems have almost everything to do with his father and mother, and they have ample screen time to exhibit their bad-parenting maneuvers. Nick’s delusions of grandeur and fear of failure are the result of his father’s demands and the contempt he shows his son for not measuring up.

Unlike the vast majority of Amerindies, in which waving the camera around is the correlative of desire, inner conflict, and just about everything else associated with drama, One uses strategically composed fixed-camera images to express Nick and Charlie’s loneliness and their frustrated desire for something or someone that will make them feel complete. Barbieri favors compositions in which either Nick or Charlie is placed near the side of an otherwise empty frame. The image is conspicuously unbalanced. It needs another person to fill the space on the other side. Even more than the subtlety of the writing and acting, it’s this sophisticated and emotionally potent visual strategy that suggests Barbieri’s promise as a filmmaker and lifts One above the low-budget indie heap.