In the pre-dawn hours, two Baltimore neighbors sit in lawn chairs fishing for ally rats. Literally fishing! With a pole and bait! Behind them the camera captures monstrous vermin scurrying boldly down the avenue, daring the fisherman to turn around and whack them with their baseball bat. The men are too focused to spot easy prey; they’re proud of their particular bait blend of oily deli turkey and creamy peanut butter. It is an irresistible formula come to them after years of experience. They know victory over their enemy is inevitable. This is just one night in an endless string of similar nights.
Documentarian Theo Anthony loses himself in the rodent-infested streets of Baltimore, attempting to connect the city’s infestation with its wretched history of desegregation. Tracing this plague back to a 1911 city ordinance that blocked blacks from moving into white neighborhoods, freezing integration, and drawing lines of governmental interest across the city. Rat Film looks to incite our fury by reveling in our phobia and horror of scurrying nocturnal beasts. The postulation being that their pestilent invasion was allowed to breed in areas where white society was too eager to ignore.
Harold Edmond is Anthony’s chosen exterminator/philosopher guiding us through demolished gardens, toppled garbage cans, and abandoned city blocks. He’s seen it all and loves the filthy little critters. His get in/get out assaults on the vermin put food on his table. Edmond states early on in the film, “It ain’t never been a rat problem in Baltimore; it’s always been a people problem.” Anthony could have rolled credits at that moment as Rat Film never quite reaches that status of perception again.
Clocking in at a brisk 82 minutes, Rat Film stuffs its gaps with experimental forays into computer models of the city and painfully predatory snapshots of a snake closing in on a newborn pinkie. The documentary is burdened by wall to wall narration from Maureen Jones, her mechanical tone oppressively aligning it to a classroom setting. We’re here to be educated, but as we get to the verge of an insightful revelation, the documentary detours into oddity.
Dan Deacon’s electronic score pulsates under the proceedings, looking to lull the viewer into a trance before Anthony can jump-scare you with an extreme close-up of a nibbling maw. Is this an effective mood, or simply filler? There’s probably a really great Dateline special report hidden inside here somewhere.
Organisms are impossible to separate from their environment, and Rat Film works best when it’s observing the forced cohabitation of humans and rodents. We want to hang out with the oddballs who find communion with the beasts, or sport in their pursuit. What’s the deal with the guy who rocks the flute while two rats perch on his shoulders? Who is that backyard bro with a stockpile of customized ammunition at the ready? Where do you even get a blowgun designed to blast four-inch tips through a rat’s skull? Anthony’s camera drifts in and out of these bizarre Baltimore dioramas, each one worthy of its own mini-doc.
While I appreciate Rat Film’s attempt to expose systemic racism through Baltimore’s overwhelming infiltration of rampaging pests, it is too often distracted with experimentation. Horrifying history lessons surrounding segregation ordinances, clandestine scientific experiments on the black population, and the racist redlining of city blocks will spark a healthy, and much-needed dose of rage. You’ll just be left scratching your head at some of the left-turn vignettes.