I will say this, and say it sincerely: Rat Film is definitely a weird film in all the right ways. On paper, director-writer Theo Anthony's documentary argues a basic-unto-banal chain of causes and effects: systemic racism keeps black communities in the United States mired in poverty, urban centers that are mired in poverty tend to be falling down around their inhabitants, falling-down urban centers tend to attract sizable rat populations, city leaders are generally less interested in dealing with public health crises like sizable rat populations when they mostly only affect poor blacks. None of this is, or at least should be, particularly revelatory (the idea that major U.S. cities have racial segregation burned into their very geography shouldn't be a real surprise to anybody who's ever lived in one), though of course an argument needn't be revelatory in order to be useful or important.

At any rate, "on paper" and "in practice" are two very distant poles in Rat Film, a blatantly strange and purposefully disordered collage of interviews, flyovers of CGI models, animal footage, and chilly voiceover narration delivered by a certain Maureen Jones, in the flat, objective tones of an alien ethnographer. It's sort of like Sans soleil as directed by Vernon, Florida-era Errol Morris, a comparison that would be more useful if most people had actually seen Sans soleil, but the point, I think, remains.

Let no one deny this to Anthony and his Rat Film: whatever it might lack, it has the ambition of ten normal documentaries. Just the fact that he's decided to make a movie about the racially charged physical layout of Baltimore that doubles as a history of failed strategies for rat control across the 20th Century - and all in just 82 minutes, at that - speaks to the excess which fuels the whole project. To say nothing of the extravagances of style threaded throughout the entire feature, which push this fairly far into the realm of experimental filmmaking.

It's an experiment that doesn't end up working, I'm sorry to report, though it at least fails in a pretty spectacular, exciting way. The biggest problem with Rat Film is that it doesn't cohere, doesn't even come close to it. To take just the most immediately present and tangible example: that CGI version of Baltimore, which is used repetitively throughout the film as one of several different anchors (extravagant the film might be, but it's at least looking to make sure that its extravagance remains easy to keep track of). The film makes much of how, owing to a programming snafu, the city keeps breaking, with certain textures replaced by a square of starfield, like the infinity of the universe is trying to crawl out of the infrastructure of the city. Even having the metaphor explained within the film, I still don't think I follow the metaphor. Or, at least, I don't follow why the metaphor is in this movie.

The same basic principle applies to a lot of what happens in this movie: it's dazzling, it's very noticeable, and it feels entirely spurious. At its best, this means that the film keeps providing fascinating, not entirely germane information for our consumption. At its most distressing, it turns into some kind of weirdly gleeful study of rats suffering (I can think of no legitimately reason for the lingering shots of a snake eating an infant rat to have ended up in this movie). And at its worst, it quite bungles the numerous interviews Anthony includes with a wide variety of Baltimore residents, black and white, male and female, pro-rat and anti-. When it's working, the film uses these to provide a grounded context for the everyday suffering it treats with such heightened aesthetic verve otherwise: Harold Edmond, an African-American exterminator who shows up more times than any other onscreen subject, provides a concrete depiction of the rat problem as it effects real places and real lives, and also offers more poetic musings about the nature of poverty and the lives it harms. But there are an awful lot of interviews with what I can only think to call Colorful Eccentrics: weird and strange locals like the rat fishers, or the man who has composed an anti-rat rap of sorts, and it's awfully hard to shake the feeling that we're laughing at these folks, not with them. Which is a poor look for a movie that has explicitly set out to address issues of inequality and human suffering.

In the hands of an Errol Morris, or a Werner Herzog, these kind of strange specimens of the human animal are the stuff of mesmerising cinema art; but Anthony, though he might well get there eventually, isn't Morris or Herzog. And in Rat Film, these extreme examples of humanity function very much like Jones's acerbic narration or the playful graphic overlays of city maps: as flourishes that create a striking audio-visual experience, but one conspicuously denuded of meaning or coherence, and one that undercuts its own state intentions quite often, without apparently noticing it. It's an arresting piece of work, but it's also disordered and shapeless.