Randy Travis’ simple, corn-silky cover of Roger Miller’s ”King of the Road” in the opening credits sets Traveller off on just the right trail. This fresh and interesting story about a tight-knit clan of Irish grifters in the rural South who make their living scamming is a ”con men on the road” picture all the more welcome during a season of junky action thrillers and indie-style explorations of kinky sex. It’s a story of insiders versus outsiders and blood loyalty versus romantic love. And as directed by accomplished cinematographer Jack Green (The Bridges of Madison County, Twister) in his feature debut, Traveller lopes along with a fine feel for the texture of the scrounge-by-their-wits existence of this secretive, little-known American subculture. (The Travellers, an American gypsy community descended from Irish stock, consider anyone who isn’t one of them fair game for fraud.)
Traveller tells the story of Pat (erstwhile rapper Mark Wahlberg, rapidly shaping into a strong actor), who, following the death of his father (who alienated the family when he married an outsider), returns to the tribe. Back among his people, he apprentices himself to Bokky (Twister’s foursquare Bill Paxton, who also produced), participating in schemes ranging from hawking asphalt sealant (it’s actually black paint) to selling wheezy RVs touted as new. But in the course of one sting — duping a single mom (ER’s Julianna Margulies, in an underdeveloped role) who works as a bartender — Bokky falls in love with his prey.
Subplots include Pat’s attraction to the daughter of the inhospitable clan leader, Bokky’s distrustful relationship with a competing grifter (rumbling James Gammon from Wyatt Earp, who walks away with every scene he’s in), and a dicey plan by all three men to outboondoggle an outfit of Romany gypsies. Indeed, the amount of story line packed into Traveller’s exotic confines is ambitious and admirable. But a wobbly script by journalist Jim McGlynn strands these vibrant characters at the very moments we most want them to show their colors most vividly. Having won our deep interest in what makes a Traveller a Traveller, the movie too often shrugs and moves on. And we’re left none the clearer about their motivations — and feeling just a little bit cheated ourselves. B