The Sleep of the Just

Old Man: Arliss Howard gives a staggering performance as a convict who rescues a pregnant woman during the horrifying 1927 flood of the Mississippi River. What starts as a mission of salvation becomes a picaresque adventure, as he and the woman (and soon her baby, too) drift on and off the river -- the Old Man of the title -- into uncharted swamps. This fellow is determined to save his human cargo. Dramatizing the sustaining power of an ordinary man's self-made ethic has defeated many an American writer, but, in his original story, William Faulkner did it without sentimentality or false rhetoric. And in John Kent Harrison's movie version, which premiered on TV's Hallmark Hall of Fame, the prisoner gets a taste of tenderness as he forges a bond with his traveling mate.

This may be a TV film, but it has a spaciousness and lift that belong on the big screen. Howard catches you up in the eddies of the hero's confused emotions, just as director Harrison plunges you into the vortices and muck of the floodlands and the bayou. It's a rich backstage joke that Jeanne Tripplehorn, who plays the woman with warmth and empathy, previously costarred in 1995's Waterworld, an action film that set pre-Titanic budget records creating an aquatic planet and putting it at the service of a feeble ecological fable. Old Man, doubtless made for a pittance, uses a scary watery reality as the setting for a roiling saga of birth and rebirth.

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