Last night, I watched a Scottish film called Ratcatcher (1999) written and directed by Lynne Ramsay. The film belongs to a genre near and dear to my heart: the coming-of-age film. It follows a boy named James, who lives in a working-class neighborhood of Glasgow during the 1970s garbage strike.
In one of the earliest scenes of the film, James accidentally contributes to the drowning death of his friend Ryan and races away from the scene of the incident before being noticed. Though James’ secret remains largely under wraps, the death of Ryan haunts him periodically throughout the film as he hears of Ryan and returns to the canal. The film repeatedly uses water imagery, again referring to the death of Ryan as a defining incident for James’ story.
Ratcatcher’s use of accidental death reminded me of several other films with adolescent protagonists that also witness the death of a peer. What function does death serve in such films? What imagery and themes link films that use such incidents in the coming-of-age tale? And how does class impact this usage? (Other identity issues also come into play since race, gender, age, and sexuality all play important roles in developing these characters. While I would love to delve into each of them, I will set them aside for the time being to focus on class)
In the case of Ratcatcher, Ryan’s death seems to be linked with James’ working-classness. With the majority of the film’s action taking place during the garbage strike, the film’s cinematography highlights the filth that piles up in the neighborhood. Meanwhile, James’ family regularly discusses their application to move into a brand-new housing project, a plan implicitly derailed when James allows the application’s evaluators into the family’s messy apartment while his father is recovering from a hangover. James’ desire to leave the neighborhood is further highlighted when he takes a bus trip to a neighborhood under construction outside of the city. In the sequence below, James clearly relishes the open space of the field outside of the house:
Such lucid, dreamy scenes stand in stark contrast to those in the garbage-littered neighborhood, where older boys bully James’ friends and sexually assault a girl James loves. These everyday occurrences become linked with the murder spatially, as they generally occur near or at the canal where Ryan drowned. As a result, the death can be seen as a manifestation of urban danger, something that James’ family strives to escape through class ascendence.
Class plays a similar role in David Gordon Green’s George Washington (2000) in which several kids in a poor rural North Carolina community cover up the accidental death of a friend. As with Ratcatcher, the cinematography emphasizes the poverty of the kids’ surroundings, but George Washington lacks the class-ascendence plotline. Instead, each character’s actions following the death differ dramatically, and it’s unclear if or how any of these incidents might be linked to the accident. The title character, for example, saves a child from drowning at the local pool at his own risk, while another boy simply disappears without a word. In general, the death weighs less heavily on the remainder of George Washington as compared to Ratcatcher, though the film does hint that the incident will impact the course of some of the characters’ lives.
Mean Creek (2004) takes the opposite approach of George Washington through the use of melodrama. The trailer nicely captures the tension amongst the characters:
Unlike George Washington and Ratcatcher, the death in Mean Creek occurs late in the film, and all of the action that follows is somehow a consequence of that defining moment. Specifically, the characters at first agree to cover-up the incident, but ultimately, the majority of the group decides to fess up to their role in the death. The one decenter is Marty (played by Scott Mechlowicz), the lone working-class kid in the group. He decides to rob a convenience store and make a run for it rather than face the authorities. As with his counterparts in George Washington and Ratcatcher, Marty’s class seems closely linked to a distrust of those in power, a characteristic used more radically in the two other films than in Mean Creek.
But while Mean Creek differs substantially from the other films, it does share Ratcatcher’s fixation with water imagery (thus the name), which suits the themes of both films. Waterways work nicely as a metaphor for passage of time, and in films largely about maturation, such motifs nicely complement the action. All of these films are gorgeously shot, well acted, and emotionally complex, making them required viewing if you have any penchant for the genre. But what sets them apart from the typical entry is the way in which death is contemplated so seriously, giving these teenage characters a degree of intelligence that many films fail to do.