1997, R, 100 min. Directed by Jack Green. Starring Bill Paxton, Julianna Margulies, Mark Wahlberg, James Gammon, Luke Askew, Nikki Deloach.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 18, 1997
Bill Paxton has been recently acting in big “effects” movies such as last summer's Twister and this summer's Titanic in which his performances are always destined to take back seats to the real stars of the movies: the disasters. So Paxton took the situation in hand with Traveller, a small, character-driven movie in which he stars and co-produces. The story involves a tight-knit clan of con artists who work the rural American South and specialize in fraudulent auto sales and various home-repair scams. All the able-bodied men, including Paxton's character Bokky, are on the road most of the year and tithe a percentage of their earnings back to Boss Jack (Askew), who tends the homefront. Seeking admittance into this world is the young outsider Pat (Wahlberg), whom Bokky -- the Travellers' top earner -- takes under his wing despite the clan's vehement disapproval. Concurrently, Bokky finds himself romantically drawn to a woman whom he and Pat scammed, and is thus forced (in more ways than one) to wrestle with the subculture's strict taboos about congress with outsiders. Essentially an adventure-comedy about a group of grifters, Traveller adds on this charming, although rather implausible, romance plot, as well as an action-thriller, one-last-big-score, ultra-violent climax. The merger creates an unsteady tone as the movie moves from scene to scene, while the script emphasizes the bizarre strictures and customs of the Travellers without ever really bringing the subculture into sharp focus. Yet there are so many strongly drawn moments, from the opening sequence during which Bokky (to the background tune of Randy Travis' version of “King of the Road”) demonstrates the “artistry” of the con, to the first steamy meeting of Jean (Margulies) and Bokky while the barroom jukebox oozes out Lou Ann Barton's “Te-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu,” to the comfortable eroticism of Jean seductively stripping down to her boxer shorts as Al Green's “Love and Happiness” encourages the lovers. It's during these small moments that Traveller delivers the goods. The film is expertly directed by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Jack Green (Unforgiven), who here makes his directing debut after hooking up with Paxton on the set of Twister (which Green also shot). Green wisely gives his actors lots of room to work, all the while putting the emphasis on the characters and their relationships instead of the blurry hokum of the narrative threads. Paxton's amiability once again comes to the fore, Margulies proves that she has a bright film future ahead of her if she ever gets a chance to go AWOL from ER duty, and Wahlberg's strong presence adds credence to the notion that he really is an actor and not just some media joke. Additionally, the character actors Gammon and Askew (who we've seen everywhere over the decades from Cool Hand Luke to Nash Bridges) deliver some of their finest work in years, and fetching newcomer Deloach makes us mourn the brevity of her role. Traveller has the kind of warmth and spirit that overrides any of its structural flaws. The excursion is well worth the fare.