You can't deny that writer/director Lynne Ramsay's debut is a very impressive piece of work. So impressive, in fact, that this slice-of-life drama won The Guardian's Rosebud Award for Best New Director at Edinburgh. The subject matter is pretty grim, in a Ken Loach kind of way, but by concentrating on solid characterisation, the film is extremely powerful in its depiction of James' emotional turmoil.
The evocation of mid-'70s Glasgow is superb. The period was bad enough in itself, but adding Glasgow to the equation really makes things hellish, and the deft use of symbolism gives greater depth to what could have been merely superficial grime. James is drawn constantly to the polluted canal which lies at the black heart of his secret and the young lead's mind weighs heavy with the guilt. Then there are the insidious rats and the contrasting image of a bright, golden wheatfield which James discovers.
While this all sounds remorselessly dark, there are skillful moments of real tenderness between James and Margaret Anne, a local girl looking for affection in all the wrong ways. And Ramsay also has an assured touch for comedy. The sparky character of Kenny (Miller) adds some welcome comic relief, and the odd slip into surreal absurdity (Kenny's pet rat ascending moonward, tied to a red balloon) elevates this beyond total bleakness.
Where the film falters slightly is in its narrative pace. There isn't any. As you become immersed in James' aimless world, so the story also becomes aimless. These characters are going nowhere fast and the loose structure reflects this. Ratcatcher is rewarding with some fine performances, but will leave you frustrated if you're after a solid plot.
A visually rich film featuring some splendid performances from the children, and a powerfully evocative sense of time and location. It's just a shame the believable characters and gritty realism are let down by a slight and meandering storyline.