Release Date: September 15, 2017
Director: Theo Anthony
MPAA Rating: NR
Runtime: 82 Minutes
One hill I will forever place myself upon to die against all opposition is that rats are indeed cute and make great pets. With this in mind it is unsurprising to me how little patience I had for the cold, pretentious and exploitative spotlight Theo Anthony’s Rat Film uncomfortably shines on these misunderstood creatures as he catalogs them with the cruel, disaffection of a jaded scientist.
Highlighting the epidemic in Baltimore and cross-examining it with local pest controllers, forensic analysts, a medical history and (most bizarrely) a social history of Baltimore’s racial animus, Rat Film scurries across these topics like its buck-toothed, red-eyed subject matter while holding the rats themselves at arm’s length, making for an uneven and potentially troubling film overall.
The motivation behind Anthony’s film, at least what I assume his intentions were, was an attempt at empathy for Baltimore’s most unwanted population, evidenced by its numerous segments detailing the killing, disposal and mistreatment of these animals. With a toneless mechanical narration and the unflinching filming style that lets his interviewees guide the film, I half-expected Rat Film to play aloof as to let these segments be naturally cruel, thus garnering sympathy. In between profiles of chemists who discovered and developed various rat poisons and the disgusting Baltimore residents who hunt this “plague” with blow darts and baseball bats, Rat Film would have you believe it is on the rats’ side for this exposé that it’s conducting on their worst abusers.
Yet Anthony’s pretentious art-film aesthetic and the overwritten poetic interludes that pepper his exposé makes the film seem wholly disinterested in the abused party here. It is difficult to assure an audience you are not merely reaping the benefits of Baltimore residents killing off of rats when you gleefully stick a camera in the mix to capture the animals’ suffering. When a documentary film offers no hint of condemnation, or even support really, for what it films, its morals remain a mystery, but based on how distant its approach is and how egotistical it gets in its numerous poetic dalliances, I think it’s safe to assume where Rat Film stands with its subject matter.
For all its insistence on a sense of depth to its exercise, that cold, mechanical approach devoid of all emotion also renders Rat Film a particularly boring affair to sit through. Even when its interviewees shift rapidly between a jovial exterminator to an equally exploitative episode with some homeless who Anthony films performing a song about their hatred for rats, the pacing in the film is sluggish and lacking direction. Some crisp filmmaking and sharp editing aside, a lot of the film is essentially lectures broken up by quirky Baltimore residents hunting rats. Even for its short length, Rat Film can weigh on your patience, even if you’re unlike me and can’t see the good in rodents.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where Rat Film‘s priorities lie and what it was hoping to accomplish with its pseudo-usage of rats to explore Baltimore’s history. I was too distracted by Anthony’s treatment of his subjects (both rats and otherwise) to really engage with this high-concept approach to this dreary movie about animal cruelty. If it had a point to make about Baltimore’s disenfranchised human population, I can’t think of a worse way to make it then to denigrate and abuse and even more mistreated population.