Raggedy Man November 6, 2022


Jack Fisk


Sissy Spacek
Eric Roberts
Sam Shepard






1 Hr., 34 Mins.


ita (Sissy Spacek) has carved a life out for herself in Gregory, Texas. But when we first meet her in Raggedy Man (1981), a quasi-Gothic drama directed by Spacek’s husband, production designer turned director Jack Fisk, she’s ready to take it elsewhere. In Gregory — a small town she moved to after divorcing her unfaithful husband (Sam Shepard) four years earlier — she’s practically in purgatory. Though it

was a kind of salvation getting a phone-company job after relocating there with her two sons (Henry Thomas and Carey Hollis), she’s since become exploited by her direct supervisor (R. G. Armstrong). She’s been tasked with essentially running the town’s sole switchboard from her home by herself, with nearly every evening’s sleep guaranteed to be interrupted by a ring or a passerby knocking on the door wanting to make a call. Nita pleads for a secretarial job in a different town, where she can work the sort of normal hours that allow you to actually have a life. But her manager unconvincingly acts like there’s nothing to be done, offering endless excuses about how there’s a war going on (the film is set in 1944) and it’s a life-or-death necessity she stays put. 


Nita’s hunger for change growls louder when, early in the movie, a touring sailor, Teddy (Eric Roberts), stops by her house in the middle of the night to call his fiancée. Bad news is quick to hit his ears: that fiancée has since started dating another man and forgotten to let him know in the meantime. But generosity cushions the hurt. Nita, who comes to like the guy when they start talking over fresh coffees, offers to let Teddy stay at the house while he waits out the rest of his leave.

A cautious love story blossoms. Raggedy Man’s best scenes are typically the ones where sensitive Nita and Teddy break down each other’s barriers with the kind of affection cobwebs had practically overtaken, and also the ones where Teddy and Nita’s boys do some bonding. (Desperate for a father figure — they haven’t heard from their own since the divorce — the kids are cutely eager to have a new man to look up to.) Raggedy Man succeeds most during its first couple of acts, where it feels like a sweet, melancholy slice-of-life movie where two people on the precipices of life change cross paths at a critical moment, with no narrative obligations besides feeling out their relationship. 

Working off a script from William D. Wittliff, the movie starts to stumble once it gets to the point where the latter seems to feel required to take the story somewhere consequential. The moment where Teddy and Nita decisively settle on the future of their romance is meant to be tearjerking, almost sweepingly bittersweet. Jerry Goldsmith’s soaring-string musical cue tells us so. But we don’t feel anything: by then it doesn’t feel like the film has earned the kind of emotional pull being called for. 

And later, when Raggedy Man leans into the hinted-at Flannery O’Connor-esque horror it’s spent the whole movie suggesting might be sitting beneath the surface, it feels capped-on, half-committal. (There are a couple creeps in town determined to win Nita’s affections; there’s also been a man with a half-burnt face standing outside the home, watching Nita, for much of the film.) Fisk, though, does give the film a dark-secrets-beneath-the-bucolic look that makes that last turn not feel completely out of left field. Raggedy Man is a minor, and minor-key, exercise. It’s obvious Fisk (making his filmmaking debut here) is still more comfortable helping cultivate a film’s visual sensibilities than its dramatic ones. But the movie’s pockets of loveliness take it a long way. And Spacek’s by turns resolute and vulnerable performance ranks among her most touching. B