Anyone who goes into this thinking they’re going to learn about the physiology of rats and their historical notoriety as carriers of infection will be disappointed. This isn’t your standard nature documentary. It’s actually an essay piece formed like a collage, and its thesis isn’t immediately evident. Only when the film begins to explain the history of city planning in Baltimore does it click. It ends up being more about why rats live where they do, and what they can do for us, than it is about their lifestyles and habits. It’s also a film that digs ever so carefully into a city’s racist past to show the devastation of its aftereffects.
The way Rat Film goes about drawing its intricate lines from Baltimore’s racism and squalor to the furry pests that are its main focus isn’t always clear or convincing, but that instability actually enlivens its dialogue. It shakes up the myriad pieces of its argument and lets you to order them in your own way, because the endpoint is not hard to uncover. Some pieces may remain outside the pattern, not really fitting in anywhere. I don’t think Theo Anthony was looking for smoothness or consistency. Yet the jagged ends still have their place, whether to put something else in perspective, or to inform you of a different angle in the chain. In its own way, it’s a fun exercise to take part in as you watch and scrutinize. A far cry from the documentaries that spoon-feed a glut of data into your system to prevent you from thinking too much.
One thing this documentary didn’t do: make me a fan of rats. Nope, nope, nope. I still think they’re icky.