Sissy Spacek Throws a Switch in Stealthy Southern Gothic
DIRECTED BY JACK FISK/1981
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JULY 28, 2020/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
It’s an old story- much older than the year that Raggedy Man opened (which is 1981), even much older than the early ‘40s wartime, when it takes place. That is, the story of a singularly single mother trying to do right by her young children by working an intensely demanding low-paying go-nowhere job. The capper is that her boss is a myopic misogynist who seems to assume some ownership of her.
Only in the past decade have we opted to broadly acknowledge and grapple with the plights of put-upon women like Nita Longley. Up until then, her story could take place in any number of times and places just about the exact same way as it does in Raggedy Man. But by setting it during World War II and in the very small town of Gregory, Texas, the story is made to pop with ominous premonitions of America gone wrong. Apparently the Greatest Generation wasn’t entirely great?
More than anything else, Raggedy Man is known for featuring its star, Sissy Spacek, at the absolute zenith of her wonderful career. Coming off of her Oscar-winning portrayal of Loretta Lynn in Michael Apted’s Coal Miner’s Daughter, she opted to chase that with this quite different yet also similarly set effort. Spacek plays divorcee Nita Longley, mother of young Harry (Henry Thomas, debuting here just before he forever became Elliott in E.T.) and younger Henry (Carey Hollis). She spends her days and large portions of her nights tethered to the switchboard of the Southwest Consolidated Telephone Company in sleepy old Gregory, Texas.
So demanding is this non-profession of hers that the boys spend their days ambling around the dirt-road town, doin’ nothin’. Sometimes, a strange, darkly ominous wandering specter known as Bailey (Sam Shepard, though don’t expect a good look at him) drifts by, always dragging a cranky old push-mower. Some folks call him “the raggedy man”. Sometimes, we catch a scary glimpse of him during a lightning crack or something of that terrifying nature. But even Bailey isn’t as bad as a few of lonely local men who’ve got their sights set on Nita. These guys- particularly a couple of brothers called Calvin and Arnold (William Sanderson and Tracey Walter)- love to talk amongst themselves about how an “experienced” woman like her, alone for so long, has gotta be pining somethin’ fierce. And they’re not above using the boys to get at her. In the meantime, a kindly Navy man in the form of Eric Roberts comes to stay for a few days. Might he be the right fella for Nita? In any case, when it all comes to a head, things don’t go the way anyone thinks.
Despite Raggedy Man being another powerfully nuanced performance by the intrinsically compelling Spacek, audiences and critics rejected it at the time. In their haste, they relegated one of the more unique slices of Southern Gothic ever committed to celluloid to a dark corner of obscurity. Thankfully, Kino Lorber has made it part of its venerable Studio Classics line of disc releases. Raggedy Man, with its many dark scenes and weathered detail, benefits satisfyingly from high definition. While there’s no wording about this Blu-ray being sourced from a new 2K or 4K transfer, it’s nevertheless the finest this visually absorbing dramatic thriller has probably ever looked and sounded in its forty-plus years.
Regarding of the visual accomplishment of it all, it should then come as no surprise that one of the finest production designers on the planet, Jack Fisk, took a rare turn in the director’s chair for Raggedy Man. Fisk, best known for his many vital collaborations with David Lynch, Terrence Malick, and Paul Thomas Anderson, brings his flair for the rustic and the past to this unexpected endeavor. Of course, he’s also known for his longtime marriage to his leading lady, whom he met when making 1973’s Badlands. It all makes one kinda wistful that Fisk hasn’t continued directing the occasional feature.
Film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson are on hand with an audio commentary that delivers in its zagging and zigging. There’s no shortage of things to discuss about Raggedy Man, from the talent behind it to the themes and messages within it. The central tensions of the film (which is based on William D. Wittliff and Sara Clark’s 1979 novel), and how it sidesteps audience expectations are poured over in their informed chat.
Big belated kudos to the ever-humble power couple of Fisk and Spacek on this one. The Raggedy Man is a curiously off-kilter discovery of a film; one that is both ahead of its time and trapped in it.