TRAVELLER (1997) ***
Like gypsies, they're always on the move --hence their name, -- live together, marry exclusively within the clan, feel and keep apart from the outside world. In the mid-19th Century, the Great Potato Famine brought huge numbers of Irish to America, including Travellers who kept exercising their scams (mostly horse trading) almost as a birthright, generally in the rural South.
In the film, a tribe of such Irish-Americans live (temporarily?) in their own trailer park in the woods of North Carolina. Twentyish Pat (Mark Wahlberg) shows up for his father's funeral. As the deceased was persona non grata (he had committed the sin of marrying an outsider) Pat's request to join the clan is rebuffed until Bokky (Bill Paxton), the star scam artist, takes him on as an apprentice.
With implausible rapidity Pat becomes skilled at the tricks of the trade. The frauds shown are the purchase of run-down trailers resold as good, and the sealing of roofs and driveways with what is crankcase oil that runs with the first rain. More imaginative is the fraud of a "lost and found" family jewel. The victim is pretty waitress-in-the-sticks Jean (Julianna Margulies), a divorced mother.
Before you can say "I'll Love You a Thousand Ways" (heard on the soundtrack) Bokky gets second thoughts about, and first feelings for, Jean. He makes restitution. Before you can say "Searching For Someone Like You," Jean and Bokky are in bed and in love. Later, when he finds out that Jean's daughter needs expensive ear surgery, Bokky embarks on most ambitious plan to get money.
This is perhaps a cliche situation, but it is nicely papered over by Paxton's solid, likable presence. The deja vu is also mitigated by Ms. Margulies being simpatica in a Sandra Bullock way and doing for her lover a wickedly sexy striptease, strong on tease yet merely PG-rated on strip.
Colorful Double D, a grizzled, canny old-timer, becomes the duo's partner in a mega-scam operation that takes them to Louisville. They go to work, with and on, a sinister operator. The mechanics of this plot are too complex to be related without spoiling the surprises. These lead both to success and to the only violence in the film.
Traveller is the directorial debut of Jack Green, the cinematographer for many Clint Eastwood movies. Recently he shot director Jan De Bont's Twister, a vehicle for special effects. It starred Bill Paxton.
Here Mr. Green does double duty as cinematographer too. He gives the movie the right realistic look, keeps photography and sets appropriately simple, functional and un-gimmicky. He avoids excessive Hollywood sentimentality or grunginess.
The script has some unclarities and holes but good touches predominate. Among them, the casting. Irish-faced Luke Askew is Boss Jack, the center and anchor of operations. He gets his cut each time. Askew reminded me of Limerick-born actor Richard Harris in his youthful years.
The Boss has a ravishingly Irish young daughter. Her quick-starting romance with Pat is not elaborated. This is not a case of story underdevelopment but rather a move to keep the main subject (the companions' modus operandi) on track with minimal distractions.
The dialogue is credibly simple. One of the best bits has Jean asking Bokky, back with his loot: "How did you do it?" His reply is a formula of Method Acting for crooks: " You look someone right in the eyes, You lie to yourself. You lie so good that you believe it."
That the players have no Southern accents might raise eyebrows, but I see it as stressing that those Irish-Americans live their own, separate tribal life in a society that comes into contact with outsiders only when necessary.
The film has two novel aspects: our introduction to an unfamiliar subculture within our homogenized nation; and the rather movie-neglected subject of fraud. Traveller stakes its modest domain within the multi-billion industry of scams with millions of victims, especially naive, uneducated, gullible people symbolized by the little old ladies who lose their life-savings.
Frauds are all around us, from boiler-room telephone operations to official looking mail : "you have won this or that-- just verify by sending us $30." " There's cheap land in Florida" (for sure, but in the swamps).
People all over the world get pleasure from films and books about con-men and their clever ways. The majority of scam-movies allow us to enjoy them not because we approve of dishonesty but because many scams are victimless crimes (cf. "Paper Moon") or at the expense of other cheats: "The Sting" stings a gangster. Hustler movies hustle hustlers. "The Grifters" shows dishonor among thieves.
Better yet, most con-jobs are comedies: the screwball classic "The Lady Eve," "The Flim-Flam Man," "Trading Places," "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels."
True, in Traveller we cannot feel sympathy for the cheats of little people. But things change with the Big Plan which is both at the expense of a dislikable character and fraught with danger for the protagonists.
The movie has an unusually good and rich (29) selection of songs, some heard in toto, including the opener, King of the Road (sung by Randy Travis) and the closer, "Young Love."