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'Traveller': Trick & Treat

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 2, 1997

Cinematographer Jack Green makes his directorial debut with "Traveller," and itís clear heís learned a lot working on the last eight Clint Eastwood-helmed films, particularly "Unforgiven" (for which Green received an Academy Award nomination).

As "Unforgiven" did with the dying West, "Traveller" explores the dynamics of a dwindling outlaw culture, in this case the Travellers, a Southern tribe of Irish-descended grifters so insular and tightknit they only marry among themselves. Travellers naturally distrust outsiders, all of whom are considered fair game for low-level, nickel-and-dollar scams like "the home game," a basic repair-and-run con that depends on its victimsí basic needs and inevitable greed.

Bokky (Bill Paxton, who also produced) is a contented Traveller, a first-rate charmer with nary a hint of guilt for his misdeeds. When Bokky returns for a Traveller group funeral -- itís more convenient for the widely scattered tribe to gather when thereís more than one ceremony -- he encounters Pat (Mark Walh-berg), bringing his scorned father back for burial (his crime: marrying an outsider). Pat wants to become a Traveller, insisting itís his birthright, but only when Bokky stands up for him is he given a shot. "Is it still Us vs. Them?" Bokky asks, challenging elder Boss Jack (Luke Askew). "He doesnít smell like them to me."

Soon, Patís enrolled in Bokkyís School for Scams, his lessons ranging from faux-fixes on leaking roofs and asphalt driveways to selling used RVs as new at distress prices (with inevitably distressing results for the marks). In some of these ventures, Bokky and Pat are joined by grizzled grifter Double D (gnarly-faced, gravel-voiced, scene-stealing James Gammon). Double Dís not a fellow Traveller but he has "a vision" and "a headful of ways to make money."

Then things begin to unravel. First, Bokky and Pat successfully pull off a bait-and-switch jewel con on roadhouse bartender Jean (Julianna Margulies of "ER"). But then Bokkyís previously unexercised conscience gets the better of him and he falls for Jean, a single mom with a sickly daughter, Shane (Danielle Wiener). Needing $40,000 for a sight-saving operation for Shane, Bokky, Pat and Double D conjure up a major scam against a competing Romany gypsy clan, one in which double dealing is just a beginning. But with the higher stakes come higher risks, and itís then that matters implode in a manner no one expects after what has previously been a genial story of cut-rate stings.

Green proves adept at capturing the quiet intensity and peculiar rhythms of Traveller culture. This is a film about people who get by depending on antisocial skills and outlaw wit, and Green and writer Jim McGlynn clearly empathize with their independent spirit and lifestyle, even if they donít completely approve. For Paxton and Margulies, itís embers over sparks, but then "Traveller" is not about two people, but A People.

TRAVELLER (R) ó Contains some adult content and mild violence.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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