Director: Morgan Spurlock
Writer: Jeremy Chilnick, Morgan Spurlock, Robert Sullivan
Producer: Jeremy Chilnick, Morgan Spurlock, Suzanne Hillinger
Stars: Ed Sheehan, Robert Cargill, Rick Simeone, Michael Blum
Pest control experts and research scientists around the world examine historical, cultural, and health issues related to rats.
Rats. I hate them. Indiana Jones’ father hates them. And if you don’t already feel the same way, Morgan Spurlock’s sensationalistic documentary does its damnedest to convince you rats are unquestionably the foulest vermin on the face of the Earth.
Up first in the interview chair is exterminator Ed Sheehan, lit as though in a noir gumshoe’s interrogation room, puffing cigar smoke while slowly spinning in a swivel chair like some cartoon mob boss. One of Sheehan’s anecdotes has the pest control professional recalling an unscientific experiment where he starved captive rats into cannibalization.
It’s unknown what worth such supposed insight offers. Who is the savage in this circumstance? Rats for doing what nature demands (see the Donner Party for evidence of humans following suit in a similar situation) or Sheehan for basically burning ants with a magnifying glass to prove a “no duh” hypothesis? As with much of the movie, if there is a particular point being made, “Rats” keeps its lips zipped on what exactly it is.
Invested more in being shocking than in being enlightening, “Rats” remains in full horror movie mode from beginning to end. Forget traditional journalistic objectivity. “Rats” treats its titular topic not as a subject to be explored academically, but a babadook to be feared and frightened of.
The film is unsubtle in its assault of jump scares and ominous music. A segment featuring Tulane University researchers dissecting diseased rodents has a clear goal of unsettling your own stomach’s contents. You’d be right to applaud the triumphant audaciousness of a living fly larva’s extrication from a deformed rat’s chest for its gloriously grotesque visual value. Concurrently, “Rats” seems determined for viewers to turn away from the screen rather than toward it, a self-sabotaging tactic for a documentary if ever there was one.
“Rats” whisks viewers on a worldwide tour from New York and Louisiana to Cambodia and Vietnam, with England and India in between. A Paris, France crew is also listed in the credits, though no such segment exists in the final cut. Who knows what happened there.
Other than unsurprising notes about Asian restaurateurs using rats as food and Hindus worshipping them as reincarnated loved ones, there isn’t too much to the multicultural aspect. Rats otherwise appear to be pretty much the same problem regardless of geography. By the time we are taken to India a third of the way into the runtime, repeated footage of people poking curbside trash bags while on nighttime street patrols only desensitizes both attention span and interest level.
Presentation-wise, “Rats” isn’t particularly polished, which is surprising for an experienced documentarian such as Spurlock. Camerawork is consistently handheld. That’s a fine format for giving a gritty guerrilla grain to street level scenes. For establishing shots of office door nameplates or other B-roll filler, it smacks of slapdash sloppiness. Exacerbating that issue is editing with no reason to cut into shots while the camera is still coming into focus, but doing so anyway to create a false sense of capturing off-the-cuff moments with no actual urgency or import.
Additionally perplexing is a choppy narrative flow. “Rats” is divided into individual city segments, except certain talking heads appear outside of their section, and there isn’t any consistency to how connective themes are rolled out or how interviewees are introduced.
In the New York segment for instance, a man named Rick Simeone identifies himself as Director of Pest Control Services for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. After that mouthful, Simeone speaks for somewhere around a minute and then vanishes entirely from the film.
Immediately taking the reins is an unidentified man, possibly a sanitation worker, in a hardhat and reflective vest escorting four folks in civilian attire on a lengthy tour of rat nesting spots throughout the city. Apologies for being vague, but “Rats” doesn’t dish any other details. I don’t even know where to start guessing why a chief contributor isn’t afforded a who, what, or why while an inconsequential personality receives much more formality.
“Rats” isn’t any clearer about why its namesake is such a problem in the Cheltenham countryside, where two-dozen terriers and a team with shovels are tasked to hunt them down on an individual basis. Chalk these examples up to an insistence on creating your own context, another tactic not recommended for a documentary looking to foster lasting food for thought.
“Rats” makes sense for Netflix because it might be appealing in the moment as a “watch once and move on” streaming option. It certainly isn’t informative or entertaining enough to warrant a physical copy for repeat viewings. Mostly, the movie seemingly means for you to come away with nothing more useful than an affirmation that rats are indeed as disgusting as you’ve probably always presumed. Merit beyond that simply isn’t on the agenda.
Review Score: 50