The film won its director numerous awards including the Carl Foreman Award for Newcomer in British Film at the BAFTA Awards, the Sutherland Trophy at the London Film Festival and the Silver Hugo for Best Director at the Chicago International Film Festival.
Ratcatcher is set in Glasgow, 1973. The city, despite its Victorian grandeur, has some schemes with the poorest housing conditions in western Europe, such as no running hot water, no bathing facilities and no indoor toilet. The city is mid-way through a major re-development program, demolishing these schemes and re-housing the tenants in new modern estates. The problems in these schemes are somewhat compounded by the binmen going on strike, creating an additional health hazard and a breeding ground for rats. The main character, James, is a 12-year-old boy, growing up in one of these schemes, which is gradually emptying as the re-housed tenants move out. James, with the rest of his family, two sisters, one older, one younger, his mum and heavy-drinking father, patiently waits to be re-housed.
The film opens focused upon James's friend Ryan Quinn, being forced to put on his wellington boots to go to visit his father, who is in jail. He'd rather play with James instead and runs off while his mother is not looking. Ryan meets James at the canal and during some rough-house play he is drowned, clearly with James bearing much of the blame for not having raised the alarm. James believes his inaction has gone unnoticed.
Ryan's family are eventually re-housed and on the day of leaving, Ryan's mother gives James the pair of brown sandals she had bought for Ryan on the day of his death.
The film follows the sensitive James as he tries to come to terms with his guilt, and make sense of the insensitive aspects of his environment.
His one escape comes when he takes a bus to the end of the line and ends up in the outskirts of the city, where a new housing estate is under construction. He explores the half-built houses, and wonders in awe at the view from the kitchen window: an expansive field of wheat, blowing in the wind and reaching to the horizon. In a scene central to the film, he climbs through the window and escapes into the blissful freedom of the field.
James befriends a girl, Margaret Anne, whom he tries to help after her glasses are thrown into the canal by the local gang. James and Margaret Anne become close friends. She is his only other relief from his home environment. She has problems of her own, allowing herself to be abused by the local gang. The two find comfort in each other's company.
One of James's friends, Kenny, receives a pet mouse as a birthday present. After the gang throw the mouse around to make him "fly", Kenny ties the mouse's tail to a balloon and we see it float to the moon, where it joins a whole colony of other mice frolicking on the moon.
The same friend later falls in the canal and is rescued by James's father, making him briefly into a local hero.
Though the military eventually comes and cleans up all the garbage in the neighbourhood, James realizes that his situation will most likely never change. He plunges himself into the canal, and we are shown a brief scene in which James's family is moving into a new neighbourhood.William Eadie as James Gillespie
Tommy Flanagan as George Gillespie
Mandy Matthews as Anne Gillespie
Michelle Stewart as Ellen Gillespie
Lynne Ramsay Jr. as Anne Marie Gillespie
Leanne Mullen as Margaret Anne
Thomas McTaggart as Ryan Quinn
Ratcatcher received generally positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports that 84% of 38 critics gave the film a positive review, for an average rating of 7.6/10. The site's critical consensus is that "Critics find Ratcatcher to be hauntingly beautiful, though its story is somewhat hard to stomach." Metacritic, which assigns a rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, has a "generally favorable" score of 76 based on 18 reviews. Popular film site Taste of Cinema put "Ratcatcher" fourth in list of the fifteen greatest Scottish films of all time.