Lynne Ramsay's debut feature, Ratcatcher, is a beguiling paradox. At once earthy and dreamy, despairing and uplifting, forthright and opaque, it renders the ordinary mysterious and the tragic oddly painless. It is an unmistakable masterpiece, yet it resists conventional exegesis. That is precisely a measure of its cinematic quality. To engage with it verbally is very much second-best. It demands to be seen.

It begins in silence and stop/start editing and then breaks into-even to some English ears-impenetrable Scottish dialect. But, as I've indicated, the words are quite secondary. We are among the mean streets and dingy council flats of impoverished Glasgow during the dustmen's strike of the 1970s though only the passing cultural references suggest any perceptible difference from the environment today. Already braced for gloom, then, we sense the shadow of tragedy laid on the shots of kids roistering in the canal. Drowning becomes a motif, whether it be in muddy water or garbage or drink or the inability to control events or, in the film's most beautiful image, in a cornfield seen through a window. How many literal drownings occur is not really certain, nor in the end does it matter unless you insist on the primacy of plot.

Alwin Kuchler's camera is so watchful and so non-judgmental that the unfolding of events is seen with rare humanity. So, for instance, when the council officers call without warning 'to assess your standard of living' and (we may assume, although it is not made explicit) draw a damning conclusion from the state of the place-if not the state of the father who, though drunk, is more sleepy than incapable-there is no sense that we are invited to blame either party. When a white mouse is dispatched into the sky tied to a balloon, segueing into nicely fanciful images of the creature floating in space and its progeny swarming over the moon, we do not feel we must look for the standard assurance that no animal was injured during filming. Rodents as vermin and as pets recur and they are seen to be as robust against events and as endemic to the community as the humans.

Ramsay constructs her montage from behavioral detail which looks found rather than directed, as much as from conventional storyboarded plotting. Along with the honorable tradition of narrative Scottish cinema, a tradition that has been greatly renewed over the last couple of decades, Ramsay also draws on the great documentary movement that is considered to have been founded, at least in Britain, by John Grierson. Unflinching records of hard lives, such as the Bill Douglas Trilogy, resonate through this film, along with the poetic realism of such portraits of actuality as Denis Mitchell's Morning in the Streets.

Much of the picture of this community is mediated through the 12-year-old eyes of James Gillespie, whose responsibility for the initial drowning is left unexplored. James is himself like muddy water: He finds his way into every crevice of the landscape, closing over people and events like a rising tide. There's an exquisitely delicate sequence in which he is permitted to touch the grazed knee of the plain, older girl who is habitually abused by all. Later he shares her bath, a scene of tenderness that is poised just above a chasm of knowingness. And to James is given the vision of a better life in an as-yet unoccupied housing estate built alongside the cornfield, a haven to which he returns in enchanted occupation at the film's end, when he may be drowning or just drifting on a dream.

--W. Stephen Gilbert