Film Review: ‘Rat Film’

The plight of our least-loved furry friends is a metaphor for the failings of human social policies in Theo Anthony's scattered documentary.

Theo Anthony
Harold Edmond, Tattoo, Margaret, Keith, Dan Bradford, Will Kearney, Greg Kearney, Madeline Cox, Louis Eagle Warrior, Matthew Fouse, Bryan Boswell, Dan Deacon, Patrick McMinn, Theo Anthony, Konrad Konopka, Anna Olszewska, Bruce Goldfarb, Marine Ellen Hertzler, Shindana Townes.
Release Date:
Dec 15, 2017

1 hour, 23 minutes

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5840448/combined

Those expecting to learn much about rodents may smell a rat after seeing “Rat Film.” Theo Anthony’s documentary is ostensibly about the unpopular pest, but really just uses that hook to draw us into something entirely about humankind. This nonfiction collage is part early Errol Morris-like appreciation of a community (namely Baltimore) through a few of its more eccentric residents, and part film essay a la Chris Marker, indicting historic civic policies that have kept the underprivileged from improving their lot.

Artfully assembled and often entertaining, the diverse whole nonetheless doesn’t quite gel, with the film finally coming off as somewhat pretentious and heavy-handed. Still, its scattered critical plaudits on the festival circuit will help draw curious viewers to Cinema Guild’s limited theatrical release.

“It ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore; it’s always been a people problem” says Harold Edmond, a garrulous, personable government exterminator who’s the primary guide here. As he visits various residents complaining of furry infestations, and not infrequently waxes philosophical, the film expounds upon his insights in various ways. We get flashbacks (narrated in an almost robotically flat tone by Maureen Jones) to both scientific experiments and city politics that helped keep this Maryland metropolis segregated not just by race and class, but blight and sanitation (or the lacks thereof).

Psychobiologist Curt P. Richter saw the rat as an ideal laboratory subject, though it’s suggested here his larger sentiments at times came uncomfortably close to the kind of eugenics then favored by Nazis, among others. When a younger Johns Hopkins colleague subsequently determined that practices that might rid neighborhoods of unsanitary pests — such as bringing housing up to code, improving sewage systems, making sure every home had running water, etc. — might also raise the general living standards of human residents, Richter seemed vehemently opposed to the ideas. We also glimpse how government and private-sector policies redlined areas designated as undesirable, denying them the opportunities for improvements available elsewhere. These inevitably reinforced social divisions, exacerbating the decline of slums in order to preserve the segregated superiority of “better” neighborhoods and their populations.

Needless to say, the rat problem remained concentrated in those “undesirable” areas. A noted experiment on a Maryland farm by behavioral researcher John B. Calhoun enclosed rodents in a habitat where all their needs were met, but conditions were badly overcrowded. Eventually the collective stress led to unnatural hierarchies, chaos, violence, even cannibalism. The correlation is clear — Baltimore’s government policies have brought little change in the concentration of crime, poverty, neglected properties and ill health in particular neighborhoods over the past century. The Washington Post recently reported that in 15 such communities in the city, average life expectancy is lower than in deprivation-choked North Korea.

These are compelling connections, but the diverting if somewhat self-consciously quirky progress in “Rat Film” tosses them into a mix with many more trivial, sometimes arbitrary elements. There’s the vaguely condescending amusement with which Anthony observes citizens who keep rats as pampered pets, plus the weird sportive glee exhibited by others who hunt rodents (with everything from baited fishing poles and airguns to baseball bats) in backyards and alleys, displaying their kills like trophies.

We get an odd detour into the legacy of a 1930s socialite, called “the mother of CSI,” who used her wealth to create meticulous miniature dioramas of unsolved murder scenes. Even less clear in terms of relevancy are recurrent glimpses of a computer program that crudely maps the streets of Baltimore, and of an auto speedway whose competing vehicles pour out maximum polluting exhaust.

If the moment-to-moment point is sometimes obscure, the overall effect is all too obvious, needlessly underlined by a long final shot of a snake devouring a live baby rat: In our society, the powerful prey on the powerless. Its narrator’s closing leap into a scenario of apocalyptic fantasy cements a sense that “Rat Film” has ambitions (and pretensions) that surpass its cohesive intellectual grasp.

Nonetheless, much of what’s juxtaposed is intriguing, and there’s considerable aesthetic care put into the packaging, from the often handsome cinematography (by Anthony and Tyler Davis) to Baltimore-based composer Dan Deacon’s original score.

Film Review: 'Rat Film'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, Dec. 16, 2017. Running time: 83 MIN.

Production: (Documentary) A Cinema Guild release of a Memory production. Producers: Riel Roch-Decter, Sebastian Pardo.

Crew: Director, writer, editor: Theo Anthony. Camera (color, HD): Anthony, Tyler Davis. Music: Dan Deacon.

With: Harold Edmond, Tattoo, Margaret, Keith, Dan Bradford, Will Kearney, Greg Kearney, Madeline Cox, Louis Eagle Warrior, Matthew Fouse, Bryan Boswell, Dan Deacon, Patrick McMinn, Theo Anthony, Konrad Konopka, Anna Olszewska, Bruce Goldfarb, Marine Ellen Hertzler, Shindana Townes.

More Film

  • For Lineup Story

    Billie Piper's Directorial Debut, 'Rare Beasts,' to Bow in Venice Critics' Week

    “Rare Beasts,” the directorial debut of British stage and screen actress Billie Piper (“Doctor Who,” “Penny Dreadful,” “Collateral”) is set to premiere at the Venice Film Festival’s Critics’ Week, which has unveiled its lineup of nine first works, four of them from female filmmakers. Produced by Vaughan Sivell of Western Edge Pictures in association with [...]

  • 'Mientras dure la guerra' -Rodaje Modmedia-

    Alejandro Amenabar, Ricardo Darin, Paco Cabezas Bound for San Sebastian

    MADRID  –  Alejandro Amenábar, Ricardo Darín and Paco Cabezas, director of episodes from “Peaky Blinders” and “American Gods,” look set to join Penelope Cruz, already confirmed as a Donostia Award winner, at this year’s 67th San Sebastian Intl. Film Festival. The biggest movie event in the Spanish-speaking world, this year’s San Sebastian runs Sept.20-28. Amenábar’s [...]

  • Pinewood Studios James Bond

    Netflix's Shepperton Studios Deal Is Stretching the U.K.'s Production Limits

    Netflix’s huge new hub at Shepperton Studios outside London is a further fillip for Britain’s booming production sector. Amid jitters over Brexit and its effects on the economy, the streaming giant’s commitment is a vote of confidence in the U.K. entertainment industry and a continuing source of local jobs. But the decision by Netflix to [...]

  • Bottom of the 9th

    Film Review: ‘Bottom of the 9th’

    Nearly two decades after scoring an audience award at Sundance for “Two Family House,” a smartly understated yet deeply affecting indie about a Staten Island factory worker who deeply regrets stifling his showbiz ambitions, director Raymond De Felitta steps back up to the plate with “Bottom of the 9th,” another dramatically solid and emotionally satisfying [...]

  • Endemol Shine Builds ‘The Bridge’ in

    Endemol Shine Builds ‘The Bridge’ in Africa (EXCLUSIVE)

    DURBAN–Endemol Shine Group has sold the rights to adapt its critically acclaimed and highly popular Nordic Noir detective series “The Bridge” to Cape Town-based production company Both Worlds Pictures, Variety has learned exclusively. The series will feature an all-African cast and will be set around the Beit Bridge border crossing between South Africa and Zimbabwe. Originally known [...]

  • Durban Film Fest 2019

    Durban Fest Hails Film as ‘Conscience of Our Nation’

    DURBAN–When Ros and Teddy Sarkin raised the curtain on the first Durban Intl. Film Festival 40 years ago, the odds were long that their scrappy fest would survive its inaugural edition. The apartheid government and its draconian censorship board had a stranglehold on the films that reached South African theaters, banning the sorts of subversive [...]

  • Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell

    Film Review: 'Tiny: The Life of Erin Blackwell'

    “Streetwise,”  the classic and haunting 1984 documentary about homeless street kids in Seattle, is a movie that’s now 35 years old. But for anyone who has seen it, the children it’s about — drifters, hustlers, squatters, thieves, prostitutes — remain frozen in time. And none of them was ever more memorable than Tiny, the 14-year-old [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content