Set during a garbage strike in 1970s Glasgow, the film initially focuses on young Ryan (Thomas McTaggart), a boy of around 10, whom we first see twisting himself up in a curtain. It's established that he has a nagging mother, an absent father and a 12-year-old playmate named James (William Eadie). A standard setup, we think. Then, without warning, Ryan falls into a canal and dies.
It's a risky gambit, killing off the apparent protagonist so soon into the game, but it works, giving James one hell of a neurosis to overcome, because he started the play-fight that led to Ryan's drowning, although no one knows this but him. It's not as if he doesn't have enough problems: As is the norm for this kind of story, there are two siblings, Da (scar-faced character actor Tommy Flanagan) is a drunk, both parents smoke and swear constantly, and the neighborhood kids seem to have started down the path to violent thuggery.
James' principal means of escape comes when he spontaneously decides one day to take a bus to the end of the line. He finds himself in the country, by a new housing development, which, without any apparent workers, becomes an adventure playground. He takes a fictional bath in the polythene-wrapped tub, urinates in an unattached toilet and stares longingly out an empty window frame that overlooks what must be the largest open field in the United Kingdom. These scenes almost recall the final delusion in Terry Gilliam's Brazil, or even the tacked-on ending of the non-director's-cut version of Blade Runner: Here is the fantasy world that stands in stark contrast to the filth-ridden urban wasteland. The place may not even exist -- the fact that James' parents never notice his absence hints at that possibility, as do later developments that we won't reveal here.
Back in the harsh realm of the real, James makes do with life by befriending Kenny (John Miller), a simpleminded child with a love of animals and a wide imagination, and Margaret Anne (Lynne Mullen), a 14-year-old who, for want of a better term, is the local slut -- she constantly and voluntarily puts out for the neighborhood boys, who generally can do nothing but act abusive in return (throwing her glasses into the canal, among other things). James, of course, is the one person who does treat her well, and she reciprocates by initiating him into the ways of love (it should be noted that both get very naked onscreen with each other, and both are clearly underage -- maybe in Europe they're "sophisticated" enough to see this without flinching, but all prudish Yanks are hereby warned).
Writer/director Ramsay has a deft touch throughout: Her actors all seem natural, and her occasional touches of magic realism -- such as a scene in which Kenny ties his pet mouse to a helium balloon, which we then see landing on the surface of the moon, a place overrun by similar rodents -- help soften the blows of squalor. She also has a good sense of irony: The Chordettes' hit tune "Lollipop" has never been put to better, or more disturbing, use than in the scene of domestic trauma it underscores here. And the ending is nicely ambiguous, alternately interpretable as tragic, beautiful or both.
Finally, a word about subtitles. As with many Scottish films, they're needed, even though the characters are ostensibly speaking English. In Ratcatcher's case, however, one gets the feeling that Americans may have an advantage over viewers in the film's native land, because the subtitles cover spoken dialogue that's barely even audible in some cases, let alone comprehensible. The "translations," although generally accurate, do have a funny habit of occasionally transcribing dialogue phonetically rather than linguistically, so that "dog" sometimes appears as "dug" and "home" as "haime." A working knowledge of Scot-speak may prove helpful in these instances.