River Deep

William Faulkner's novella Old Man has a biblical magnetism, a primal moral pull. During the horrifying Mississippi flood of 1927, convicts are conscripted for disaster relief. A guard orders two of them to take out a boat, find a woman stuck in a cypress tree and a man clinging to the roof of a cotton house, and paddle the pair to safety. One convict, who's never rowed a boat before, tumbles into the drink and slogs back to shore. The other, Faulkner's hero, manages to hang on to the skiff. He can't find the man on the cotton house, but he does take charge of the pregnant woman, and soon her baby, too. He follows instructions assiduously and never thinks of escaping. What starts as a simple rescue mission becomes a picaresque adventure, as he drifts on and off the Mississippi River -- the "Old Man" of the title -- and into uncharted swamps.

The story develops sardonic humor as the worst keeps happening: The rising waters engulf the skiff; men fire on him and threaten to dynamite or ram his boat. But he won't change out of his convict's uniform until the mud has made it unrecognizable, and he refuses to relinquish his government-issue craft even when friendly boatmen demand it before they'll give him and his passengers a ride. When he veers out of Mississippi into the Louisiana bayou and partners up with a Cajun gator hunter, he relaxes his prison consciousness: He experiences the difference between meaningless toil and gratifying work. But having received a lengthy sentence for attempting to rob a train while under the influence of pulp fiction, he's determined to bring his human bounty back and do good time. Despite its rough and (in the end) arbitrary justice, prison has helped him clear his mind; when he leaves, it will be with a clean record.

Dramatizing the sustaining power of an ordinary man's self-made ethic has defeated many an American writer, but in Old Man Faulkner does it without sentimentality or false rhetoric. And the movie version, premiering on CBS's Hallmark Hall of Fame on Sunday, enlarges the story's spectrum of feeling. By definition, this may be a TV film, but it has a spaciousness and lift that belong on the big screen.

Arliss Howard as the convict delivers a staggering performance, catching you up in the eddies of the hero's confused emotions, just as the director, John Kent 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 Waterworld, an action film that spent megabucks 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.

It tells how the convict holds to his code yet opens up to life -- and that's what director Harrison does too. Taking off from a screenplay by Horton Foote (which is looser and more inventive than we'd ordinarily expect from the writer of rural mood pieces such as Tender Mercies), Harrison cleaves to Faulkner's hard edge while allowing a harsh sweetness to seep into the body of the material. From a midcentury gender perspective, Faulkner scholar Edmond L. Volpe summarized the novella's message this way: "The male's sole source of power is his maleness, his instinctive moral integrity" -- that's how he keeps his footing in an alien quagmire, though he's saddled with a woman and child. Faulkner ends with the suggestion that the man became a train robber to impress his girlfriend, who later married another man; indeed, in the last line the fed-up convict exclaims, "Women -----!" Harrison and Foote acknowledge the old girlfriend at the start, then focus on the connections rather than the friction between the convict and the mother. That choice is right for this movie: Without diluting the starkness of the drama and the existential comedy, it multiplies the story's possibilities.

In the novella's third-person narration, Faulkner writes of "that rapport of the wedded conferred ... by the two weeks during which they had jointly suffered all the crises, emotional social economic and even moral, which do not always occur even in the ordinary fifty married years"; he notes that the two lead characters are bonded close together because they're both backwoods natives, heirs to the same "hill-bred Abraham." The filmmakers subtly dramatize how the convict renews himself and grows in stature by allowing their unstated intimacy to enter his heart. And this soulful expansiveness fits his unexpected odyssey. If the movie of Old Man has a message, it's that you've got to balance goals against going with the flow. After several startling, surreal episodes, including a baptismal glide through the steeple of a church knocked sideways by the flood, the couple hitches a ride on a riverboat headed for New Orleans. (They think it will drop them near the woman's family farm.) As they hear Cajun dialect ("gobble-gobble") and music for the first time -- and endure the condescension of a well-meaning doctor -- they silently seal their (platonic) union. At that juncture the movie leaps into a lyrical realm. It isn't just the country-French accents that remind you of early Jean Renoir. The clog-beat of the Cajun music gives a rhythmic underlay to the sparse dialogue, and the camera waltzes around the scene, linking up details such as a little girl sunning herself, or a man playing a squeeze-box in front of a caged duck. The characters are liberated from routine, just as the script is from formula. The movie Old Man is like a boat that shoves off from a known landing and rides steadier the farther it moves into unknown waters. It has what John Boorman's underrated epic Beyond Rangoon had: an ambiance of gritty real-life wonder.

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