From the outset, director Theo Anthony’s meditative, thought-provoking documentary is all about drawing connections between Baltimore and its sizable rat population. An early scene features one of the titular creatures trying to scramble its way out of a garbage can in the dark. As the narrator coolly points out, the full-sized Norway rat can leap an average height of 32 inches, while the typical trash can in Baltimore stands at 34 inches. The implication: the agility of the former influenced the latter’s design.
The following vignettes exploring how Baltimoreans have long cohabitated with rats as Anthony interviews a wide swath of people across different races and social classes. Not surprisingly, the majority treat rats as a nuisance to be gotten rid of, and indeed, a recurring subject is a city inspector, Harold Edmond, who makes house calls, depositing poison wherever he goes. But others reveal a different approach, such as various young males who hunt the rodents for sport, using whatever means are at their disposal, and a pair of would-be rappers who sing about committing acts of extreme violence on them.
Initially, Anthony seems fascinated and somewhat put off by the rat in the garbage, which he frames in a manner emphasizing its beady eyes and aggressiveness. But over the course of his filmic essay, his approach becomes more sympathetic and the line between rat and human blurs increasingly. He repeatedly cuts to not one but two video games featuring three-dimensional maps of different environments, ranging from Baltimore to the interior of a home. One game represents a human being’s point of view and the other a rat’s, but otherwise they’re essentially the same.
There are also various close-ups of live baby rats, aka “pinkies,” which make them seem as delicate and vulnerable in all their pink-skinned nakedness as any newborn human baby. However, our sense of empathy is exactly what Anthony manipulates to horrific effect, as a short time later, he introduces a live snake into the mix and then stands back as the audience squirms.
The film has a loose narrative structure, and when it isn’t jumping back-and-forth between subjects, it offers a history lesson on the attempts to alleviate Baltimore of its rats. All have failed, but not so much due to the rodents themselves but the failure to alleviate the problems affecting the human population, such as poverty, substance abuse, and a lack of economic opportunity. As the aforementioned inspector, Harold Edmond, points out, rats are always found where people are the least educated and the most desperate, due to their poor living conditions and the dilapidated housing stock. The folksy Edmond, incidentally, might be the closest the film has to a protagonist we feel some affection for, because he sees this bigger picture.
There are times in which Anthony seems to reach for an even more profound message, but he leaves it to audiences to figure out his meaning. For example, there are two visits to the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office in Baltimore: the first is for the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a series of dollhouse-style dioramas created during the 1940s and ’50s that replicated real-life crimes. The second visit is to a life-sized set where police officers use mannequins, and sometimes people, to re-create grisly murder scenes. On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to include either, except that the medical examiner’s office happens to be in Baltimore. Is the idea that both the Nutshell Studies and its larger counterpart are basically the same—with the only difference being scale? Are we intended to think of rats and humans similarly—one organism, different heights?
The score is full of frantic strings and high-pitched synthesizer flourishes, which lend an ominous mood, yet one that’s appropriate, as Rat Film is largely about urban decay. While the film is something of a puzzler, it’s recommended for those open to re-evaluating a much-maligned species of pest.