on April 18, 1997 by Jon Matsumoto
   They're called Travellers--grifters of Irish descent who roam the rural South preying on the old and naive. With an ingratiating smile and abundant small-town charm, they offer to repave driveways and fix rooftops for a reasonable price. Only when these scam artists are long gone do the victims realize that they've received nothing in return for their money.
   Set within this real and fascinating subculture of scheming Irish gypsies, "Traveller" is at its most resonant and meaningful when it's examining the clan's fiercely tribal instincts that are at the heart of this uneven but likable small film. The isolationist and almost cultish attitudes of the people is revealed almost immediately when city-raised Pat O'Hara ("Fear's" Mark Wahlberg) encounters his Traveller relatives for the first time when young Pat tracks down his kinn so that his dead father can receive a proper burial.
   The corpse is somewhat grudgingly accepted by the tribe's hard and inflexible leader, Boss Jack (Luke Askew). It seems the elder O'Hara had years before committed an unforgivable sin by marrying an outsider. He was subsequently forced to live apart from the family. Pat is also looked on with suspicion, even though he's genuinely eager to adopt the Travellers' swindling, insular lifestyle. Only Bokky ("Twister's" Bill Paxton) is willing to take Pat under his wing.
   The gritty-looking "Traveller" (directed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Jack Green) offers plenty of breezy excitement as Bokky and Pat try to rip off various folk. At one point, they barely escape with their lives as one of their schemes is unveiled by a farmer fooled one too many times. The film's turning point arrives when Bokky falls for Jean (Julianna Margulies), a single mother who loses her bartending job as a result of one of the duo's scams. A repentant Bokky tries to help the fetching brunette get back on her feet. When Jean's pre-teen daughter is discovered to need a costly operation, the two grifters team with an older relative in an attempt to pull off their biggest heist of all, involving the defrauding of a group of mobsters.
   Bokky's moral awakening is a bit cumbersome. It's hard to believe that Jean has that kind of sway over him, or that she's even genuinely interested in reforming him. The relationship lacks a certain obsessive fire that would better support their mutual attraction. "Traveller" offers a fun, escapist ride when it allows moviegoers the thrill of taking part in the clever trickery, but it's even better when it explores the intense loyalty and Irish-based customs of these masterful thieves.    Starring Bill Paxton, Julianna Margulies and Mark Wahlberg. Directed by Jack Green. Written by Jim McGlynn. Produced by Bill Paxton, Brian Swardstrom, Mickey Liddell and David Blocker. An October Films release. Drama. Rated R for strong language and violence. Running time: 100 min.
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