Raggedy Man (Movie Review)

Tor's rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ Director: Jack Fisk | Release Date: 1981

"Raggedy Man" does not really fall into the category of 'horror film'. In fact, those sitting down expecting a film filled with the standards of the genre are going to be sorely disappointed. What "Raggedy Man" does feature (and why I chose to review it for this site) is a creeping discord that keeps the viewer on edge with the sense that an impending calamity is inevitable.

Nita (Sissy Spacek) is the mother of two young boys, Henry and Harry; they live in a tiny Texas town during the tail end of WWII. The boys’ father Bailey (Sam Sheppard), a wanton philanderer, is shipped off to war then inexplicably disappears upon his return home. Nita presses on; working as the switchboard operator for the town. Her frequent requests for transfer are refused by her boss who insists that she is frozen in her post because of the war. Beyond wanting more for her boys the biggest factor fueling Nita's desire to leave is that she is one of the few single women in town and because of this she's subject to heightened scrutiny and unwanted attentions. This manifests most dramatically when she becomes the object of fantasy for two of the town's shiftless drunks, Calvin and Arnold (William Sanderson, Tracey Walter). The two contrive a number of ways to try and get close to her but Nita courteously rejects their advances.

One night during a downpour, Teddy, a young sailor who is awaiting deployment arrives at Nita's home/office asking to make a phone call to his girlfriend back home. After it turns into a Dear John call he and Nita form a fast friendship. Teddy decides to spend his leave with Nita and the boys. He spoils Harry and Henry and dotes on Nita awakening the prying eyes of the town busybodies. The relationships between Nita, Teddy and the boys flower quickly but with the overarching feeling that they will end too soon for the good of all involved.

Through the oppressive small town milieu walks the ominous figure called the Raggedy Man, a disfigured local tramp who drags around a lawnmower and sets some of the townsfolk (Nita included) on edge. His origins are unknown for most of the story and it is through his characterization that the film visually resembles a horror movie. In addition to this the Raggedy Man is the personification of the film’s strongest theme.

"Raggedy Man" is a deft parable on the delicate nature of masculinity. Nita is a woman alone, trapped in the center of a dormant caldera of undirected and misdirected male energy. Her two boys spend their days aimlessly patrolling the streets of their unfriendly town. Teddy, the hope of the story, is an abandoned man on the cusp of an uncertain future. The other men left behind in this desolate little berg are beyond their fighting years or quick with an excuse for why they aren't part of the effort abroad.

Even the title, "Raggedy Man" is as much an allusion to the beleaguered and precarious state of these men as it is a reference to any single character. Different stages of life and emotional development separate all of them, but thanks to a well crafted environment it feels more like a continuum than a categorical divide. The best example of this is Calvin and Arnold, who are almost certainly a glimpse of one possible future for Henry and Harry; one that might only be avoided should they find the singular thing that all of the men seem to lack, the abiding love of a father.

"Raggedy Man" is tight in its narrative structure, and maybe a tad dated in its pacing. The acting is solid to very good, which considering the fantastic cast is a small disappointment. It is Jack Fisk’s direction of everything outside of the performance realm that makes the film worth the time. The world is believable and the tension that develops seeps in through clever choices. The use of the Raggedy Man character is a strong example. Fisk positions him as savior and would-be marauder sometimes within the same scene. Likewise, Teddy functions as both a blessing and a curse, bringing Nita and the boys solace and love as well as drawing them into a circumstance he won’t be there to help them resolve.

Fisk's firm directorial hand combined with Ralf Bode's ("Dressed to Kill") dusky, arid lighting choices and the film’s stellar production design create a captivating filmspace for the story. Thanks largely to these accomplishments "Raggedy Man" manages to be a relative rarity, especially viewed by today's standards. Namely, it’s a good film with a great cast, crafted by people who knew how to tell a layered story and dress it admirably with tension, quiet longing, and identifiable characters. It may not be a film that sets hard into the horror memory bank; but it’s worth an hour and a half of your time.