Mark Lewis’s Rat is a documentary about rats. As always, thanks for reading!
Fine, if you want more, Rat (1998) is an incredibly engaging short documentary about (non-pet) rats in New York City specifically, and about how their lives intersect with those of the humans around them, often to the humans’ dismay. We meet people who have felt besieged and terrorized by rat infestations in their apartments, who can’t sleep because they hear the rats scurrying around at night; there’s a man who woke to find an enormous one on his chest and a woman who had to keep a stockpile of cheap plastic trinkets on her bedside table so she’d have something to throw to drive them away. We look at the process of seeding rat poison throughout the subway tunnels and sewer system. It is, Rat implies, a grinding war of attrition, and one the rats might very well win. They are, after all, probably better at survival.
There’s a lot in Rat that comes close to qualifying as horror, and the film does have a sense of empathy towards the frazzled, beleaguered people who see their homes rapidly become unsafe and unsanitary. If you didn’t already know that a rat infestation would be an absolute nightmare, you’ll learn it in short order. But despite that, Rat is so colorful, and so interested in the idiosyncrasies of its cast of interviewees, that the dominant tone is comedic, if fatalistic. The reenactments feel tongue-in-cheek, as if even the trained rats are in on the joke. You can almost sense Lewis’s delight when one man earnestly relates how often his rat-hunting adventures required fortifying swigs of booze … and I don’t even want to mention the actual best/worst anecdote in the movie, because it deserves to be experienced unspoiled. If you have a free hour, and you want to use it contemplating how inseparably entwined we are with the natural world even in the most thoroughly urban environments, and you also want to laugh and cringe at the same time, Rat is here for you. And one day, or so it has led me to believe, it may be here for us all.
Rat is streaming on the Criterion Channel.