Beware! This review contains one (and a half) of those words that some people don’t want other people to read.
White (a.k.a. Trois Coleurs: Blanc), 1994, Krzysztof Kieslowski, which isn't that similar, but it involves a revenge scheme which is easily missed the first time through. Maybe this is what I hoped Traveller would be.
The Travellers are this country’s gypsies. They live in the south and travel around, conning and scamming people (and sometimes big companies) for whatever they can get. As my brother said, this is uncharted territory, entertaining in and of itself because it shows something we don’t see in our pop culture.
He’s right, but he’s too generous. There are a lot of mistakes that keep Traveller from being a very good film. They are minor, but they are pervasive.
The movie introduces us first to the scamming life, then to “the family.” They are not the Mafia, but they are a close-knit clan, and outsiders are not welcome. Pat (Mark Wahlberg), the son of a former Traveller returns with his father’s body to be buried on family ground. His father was kicked out of the family because he married an outsider. Now Pat wants to join the family and stick to it like his father couldn’t.
At first, the family patriarch Boss Jack (Luke Askew) doesn’t want to allow Pat into the clan, but Bokky (Bill Paxton) takes him under his wing. The two leave home base and travel around together, scamming farmers, homeowners, and bartenders. At one bar, the scam goes just as planned, but afterwards, Bokky realizes that he has fallen in love with Jean, the bartender (Juliana Margulies).
Bokky finds out that Jean has lost her job because of him, so he goes to her house to return the money. He’s developing a guilty conscience about what he does for a living, and he sees a better life with Jean as a real possibility.
Wahlberg (as Pat) starts to shine as Pat becomes more annoyed at Bokky for falling in love with an outsider. His surrogate father is making the same mistake his real father made. Here is Pat, working very hard to win respect with “the family,” frustrated, as he watches Bokky dissolve his own ties “over a fucking woman.”
Meanwhile, Double D (James Gammon), a fellow Traveller, starts hounding Bokky in an attempt to convince him to help with a very big swindle that he has planned.
All three see Double D’s plan as their way to get what they want: Bokky can make one last big score (both to start his new life and to soften Boss Jack over his leaving), Pat can win respect, and Double D can finally put his plan into action.
A movie like this is fun in the same way that Penn & Teller are fun. (Penn & Teller are magicians known for giving away some of the tricks of their trade.) It’s easy to get caught up in the trick because it goes so smoothly. Then you see how much work went in to making it look easy, and you develop a new respect for the man pulling the strings. There are some of these tricks in Traveller, but not enough to really work your brain.
I also have some reservations about the subject of the movie. I wouldn’t say that Traveller glamorizes the life of a con artist, but it does present it as the norm. Bokky does develop a conscience, but there are spots in the movie where the con is sometimes cruel. When Jean realizes she’s been had, there is a scene of her reacting in anger and disbelief. Another time, the victims are a young man and his pregnant wife.
These scenes are in the movie so that we can understand Bokky’s desire to get out of the business, but they are hard to watch because of their cruelty. I suppose that doesn’t have to be a criticism, though.
But there are grounds for criticism in Traveller, which is a sloppily made movie.
First, Paxton and Margulies lack screen chemistry. There’s lots of sex, but no chemistry. This wouldn’t be a problem in another movie, but Bokky is willing to change his life for this woman. Presumably, if the relationship were “just” sex, he wouldn’t go to the trouble of leaving the clan. Then again, maybe that’s why the cruel scenes mentioned earlier are so important — maybe it’s Bokky’s conscience and not his heart that is pulling him away from the family.
Second, Green and screenwriter Jim McGlynn made the movie too blunt. The setup has different characters repeating how the family ain’t like the outside world. Then, After an early run-in with Boss Jack, Pat gets a crush on a pretty girl. He follows her home and realizes that she is the daughter of — you guessed it — Boss Jack. (To add irrelevance to insult, this relationship is tossed aside and forgotten.) Worst of all, the movie has a deus ex machina ending. It appears that McGlynn wrote himself into a corner and ran out of clever ideas.
Finally, the editing of the movie was clumsy. Most people don’t notice the editing, even when it’s bad, so if you want to see this movie, skip this paragraph. There are abrupt shifts of location and mood that reveal either a novice director or a mediocre editor. This movie appears to have both. Green, who has been a renowned cinematographer for a long time, makes his directorial debut (he also acted as cinematographer). Michael Ruscio, with only five movies under his belt edited Traveller. An example is a montage of Bokky crying over his wife’s and daughter’s graves. Then, rather suddenly, we cut to him taking care of business with Boss Jack. Another example is when Bokky learns that his grandmother is ill. He reacts, then we cut to his car, then we quickly cut to his grandmother’s trailer. All three shots play as part of the same scene. There is nothing to indicate the passage of time or distance. (And, as my brother says, this is particularly jarring since the characters seem to move about in such a large world.)
I think many people, including my brother, can see past technical flaws and enjoy a movie because of an interesting story or setting or character. I admit that I tend to be picky about the quality of the filmmaking. If you’re like me, you might want to skip this one. If you’re like him, by all means you should go see it.