Traveller (2006): Starring Bill Paxton

Despite structural and narrative problems, Traveller, a comedy-adventure about the shenanigans of a clan of con artists, is engaging–and most entertaining–from first frame almost to last.

Jack Green, Clint Eastwood’s longtime cinematographer, makes an impressive directorial debut that features Bill Paxton (who also produced) in his richest role since One False Move. Receiving its world premiere in SXSW film festival and opening in platform in Texas next month, October release will probably get mixed critical reaction, but with the right handling pic can go beyond the indie milieu to score modest returns with young adventurous viewers.

Evoking in its good moments such classics as The Sting and The Grifters, Jim McGlynn’s script suffers from an incoherent approach–and an unsatisfying ending–unable to make up its mind whether it’s a comedy-adventure a la Paul Newman-Robert Redford Oscar-winning vehicle, darkly ironic and uncompromising a la Stephen Frears’ noirish gem, or a crime thriller. Result is a film that unevenly mixes these elements, vacillating in tone from one sequence to another.

Loosely based on the real story of Irish-American grifters whose primary vacation is fraud, tale concerns a tight-knit clan of con men, with its own strict subculture and truly bizarre mores. Outwardly, the members of this secretive group seem “normal” and ordinary, until one realizes that their criminal lifestyle is not so much a matter a choice as a birthright.

In the first scene, youngster Pat (Mark Wahlberg) returns home for the funeral of his father, a Traveller who betrayed the code when he married an outsider and hence became an outcast. Pat’s main motivation is to join the group, be an insider, make up for his father’s “sin.” The clique’s leaders stubbornly reject him until Bokky (Paxton), the main operator and “star artist,” interferes and takes him under his wing.

The next section pretty much follows a Hollywood buddy movie, centering on the evolving camaraderie between Pat and Bokky, with the latter teaching him the tricks of the trade. Anxious to prove that he’s a worthy Traveller, Pat turns out to be the ideal, if sometimes slow, student. Pic’s highlight is a wonderful sequence in which the two men trick an attractive bartender, Jean (Julianna Margulies), a hardworking single mom, into spending big money on “retrieving” a precious silver pin that Pat claims to have lost in her bar.

Traveller touches all too briefly on the scary elements of the clan’s lifestyle, its strict demand that members marry within the group. Indeed, tensions arise when Pat shows romantic interest in the appealing daughter of Boss Jack (Luke Askew), but the movie drops this fascinating angle in interest of the more accessible and crowd pleasing aspects of the story. In the manner of familiar Hollywood yarns about con artists, the film shrewdly humanizes its protagonists to the point where the audience forgets their identity and roots for them to succeed–and survive.

Well-executed climax involves a scheme for which Pat hooks up with veteran Double D (James Gammon), trying to outsmart a wealthy mobster and his dangerously vicious men. Bokky, who at this point has left the group (in a rather unconvincing, incredible subplot), decides to rejoin them. Guilt-ridden for deceiving Jean, he risks his life for one last score that will pay for her daughter’s costly operation.

Predictably, the scam goes awry and ultra-violent confrontation between the two bands, with mom and daughter taken hostage, recalls the torture scenes in One False Move and Reservoir Dogs. However, just as the movie drifts along, risking the danger of becoming derivative, helmer Green smartly goes back to the main line, the intricate web of relationships among his chief characters. Green also knows the value of a romantic interlude, orchestrating a marvelously erotic date between Bokky and Jean, in which she seductively dances and strips for him.

Paxton, who recently appeared in such blockbusters as Apollo 13 and Twister, is back on indies’ terra firma in a rich character role that’s not only charismatic but holds the entire picture together. The older members of the cast, particularly Askew and Gammon, shine throughout. The only weak performance comes from Wahlberg, whose stiff acting and monotonous delivery undercuts the complexity of the central role allotted to him. The film’s real discovery is the beautiful Margulies (from TV’s ER), who demonstrates the looks and stature of a future bigscreen leading lady.

Green brings his lensing expertise to his direction, which is loose enough to allow his performers to freely maneuver. Helmer pays tribute to his mentor, Clint Eastwood, aptly planting a scene from Every Which Way but Loose on a TV screen. Tech credits are serviceable, but a terrific score, with such hits as “King of the Road,” “If You’ve Got the Money, I’ve Got the Time,” and “Dream Lover,” often sustains the pic’s momentum when the narrative threatens to stall.