This third short of Anderson’s Roald Dahl anthology is another step into darkness. The whimsy of Henry Sugar (2023) resided only in that original episode, with The Swan (2023) and this next instalment trading in something really rather chilling. The style remains somewhat uniform: a stripped-down, theatrical approach to blocking where characters monologue directly at the camera, reading the story as the story instead of bringing it to life. The backgrounds are detailed, beautifully designed (and framed) in the typical Wes Anderson way, but they function like stage backdrops. This short has even less movement, an excising of the transitions and a focus on severe cuts between setups.
This results in a cold cinematic language. Our frames are primarily static and any movement, or change in angle, feels very purposeful. There is a tension to this short, and if we are to take the semantics of the word ‘cut’ then these jumps are the knives that idiomatically cut through. This effective simplicity is linked to the story: a rat man (Ralph Fiennes) is hired by two men (Rupert Friend and Richard Ayoade — the latter being our primary point of view character) to get rid of some rats. The frame is usually built around the three of them, in a constricting way, using colour and placement to suggest certain dynamics. As expected from Anderson, the mise-en-scene is precise and purposeful, rewarding close reading. If there are primary themes, they are about the fear of the other and the enticement of the macabre (traditional Dahl territory).
The key achievement of the short is its atmosphere. Fiennes continues to show range in Anderson works that other directors (himself included) don’t afford to him. This rat-like exterminator is portrayed in a way that elicits immediate disgust or at least a sense of trepidation. The opening patter, where he establishes expertise over Friend’s character is wonderfully written tradesperson dialogue but is also key to a push-and-pull power dynamic that defines the piece. It is about prey and predator, about tricking and gaining advantage. Conversations play out like rat traps themselves, Fiennes character taking on this scheming position where he is constantly luring before pouncing. The effect is an engaging watch.
Our shortcomings are somewhat stylistic. This piece works due to coherence, a commitment to an approach that mirrors the way every element — though they seem disparate — feeds back to the same idea (the rat catching is, in execution, no different to the conversations that seem to dominate the short). Once again, this is very theatrical, where performance is often limited to gesture and exists to accompany the words rather than replace them. There are Brechtian flourishes as well as form of Readers Theatre — where no props are used — or even the beginnings of Physical Theatre. The problem is that it is inconsistent, Anderson and co. follow the style that fits the moment (which is dramatically pleasing) but the lack of rigidity can be unsatisfying. We go from suggestive actions as props to then just using props and the approach feels guided by the moment rather than the impact of the overall piece: immediate satisfaction is prioritised at the cost of overall impact.
This twisted tale works, though, with a deft ending that will send an appropriate chill down the spine. You may yearn for the version that fully embraces the theatrical — actually becoming Physical Theatre (or being, dare I say, more like Dogville (2003)). It is all well made, as per, but this comes with a sense of comfort, staying in a known territory that isn’t additive to what the short could do. However, this level of nit-picking is indicative of how impressive these productions are. If you want great tales told engagingly, you will still be more than satisfied.