TIFF Review: ‘Rats’

TIFF 2016

3 mins read

(USA, 88 min.)
Dir. Morgan Spurlock
Programme: Midnight Madness (World Premiere)


Rats, the latest doc from filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, is a creepy-crawly tale about the insidious creatures and their often-symbiotic relationships with humans. A kind of anti- Ratatouille, instead of rescuing the rodents from our natural disgust, the film revels in showing the prurient nature of the varmints. Not for the faint of heart, this film delves into the scurrying lives of rats, managing to both entertaining and frightening at the same time.

Unlike many of Spurlock’s films, which feature the director prominently, this is a more conventional, almost journalistic film. It’s a travelogue of sorts showing how these four-legged pests are handled in various parts of the globe.

From New York we meet Ed Sheehan, slaughterer of rats and a kind of real-life version of Jaws’ Captain Quint, telling salty tales of the cunning creatures he has confronted over four decades. In New Orleans, scientists explore the areas felled by Hurricane Katrina, finding the repulsive parasites that live within the varmints. In England we find a group of hunters that take their own pets and turn them into violent beasts, the hounds scurrying over the moors looking for their prey. Then to India, for more tales of extermination, and Cambodia, for a very different take on the capture of the creatures.

What makes the film so effective is its balance between being educational and entertaining, all within the framework of a midnight movie. With a haunting score, jump cuts and other cinematic tricks of the trade, Rats is structured like a horror movie, using the tropes of terror to poke fun at our squeamishness but also to lay bare our instinctual reaction to these animals.

The film isn’t shy about showing the slaughter of rats, and thanks to its darkly comic style, the impact is even more provocative. It’s a film that changes your perspective, and is sure to unsettle, but it fundamentally is both informative and fascinating. Spurlock’s film is an accomplished and engaging look at our reactions to rats, ranging from our usual action of outsourcing the menace to others, through to those at the forefront of combating these wily creatures.

Rats is a rare doc that both informs and gets under your skin. Beautifully shot and with terrific pace and an effective, over-the-top horror score, it’s easily one of the most evocative and downright frightening non-fiction films of the year. The day after seeing it, this writer found himself kicking at boxes sitting outside restaurants, aghast at the creatures scurrying out that he had ignored only the day before.

Please visit tiff.net for more information on this year’s festival.

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at ThatShelf.com and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, RogerEbert.com and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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