Looks Are Everything

Think you know gypsies?
Dark, swarthy types with yard-long coils of blue-black hair set off by huge gold earrings, right? In the back room, Madame Salona will read your palm for fifty. Gypsies all speak an impenetrable language from another planet. Always staging personal-injury accidents in the produce department at Safeway. They are intent on stealing old ladies blind at the racetrack and obsessed with poker. Every last one is a mysterious thief from some godforsaken outpost like Lithuania or Murmansk, swilling whiskey from an open pint and doing strange dances in the moonlight that the gajo just don't understand.

Shopping for some Hollywood stereotypes? The ultimate is exotic Maria Ouspenskaya in The Wolf Man. The latter-day Romany tag-team members--fresh from the makeup department by way of the Actors' Workshop--are Susan Sarandon and Eric Roberts in The King of the Gypsies.

Now we learn we're wrong, all wrong. Gypsies have blue eyes. They're Irish-American. And they all live in North Carolina. That, at least, is the news flash behind Traveller, a feisty little independent feature that wants us to know that the descendants of Irish "tinkers" who drifted to America behind the Potato Famine are still hard at work on the byways of Dixie--steering the unwary into crooked Winnebago deals, working the old roof-sealant scam, short-conning saloon-keepers with that sad story about the lost diamond stickpin.

This glimpse of secret tribal custom and unbridled greed is highly atmospheric and intermittently enjoyable. But any moviegoer who finished the seventh grade could probably have written the scenario with eyes shut tight.

The dedicated student of subculture here is one Jack Green, a veteran cinematographer who has shot eight Clint Eastwood movies and one of last year's major disaster epics, Twister. As a result, Traveller (the name these grifters go by) is gorgeous to look at, if a little light in the content department. First-time director Green captures the back roads, roadhouses and trailer parks of the contemporary rural South in the kind of detail many established moviemakers will envy. When he takes his camera into a low-rent motel room, you can practically feel the cooties crawling over the pillowcases. In a saloon you smell the beer.

As for character development--pretty much a necessity in an affair like this--we've played all these changes before. There's the veteran scammer of the gang, Bokky (Bill Paxton), who's ordered by the crusty old patriarch, Boss Jack (Luke Askew), to take a green newcomer (Mark Wahlberg's Pat) under his wing. Guess what? The kid turns out to be the guy with the real taste for fraud (inherited it from his father), while the weary mentor is willing to trade larceny for love.

But first they go for the inevitable big score. Over in Kentucky, a pair of crooked horseplayers have a bundle in the safe. They're every bit as avaricious as the Travellers, twice as well-armed and have double-cross in mind. Among the sacks of money, real and fake, somebody's going to wind up dead, that's for sure. Suddenly, our swindlers have moved up from spray-painting driveways to duking it out with pros.

The usual questions prevail. Will Bokky survive and reunite with his newfound lady love (ER's Julianna Margulies), a struggling single mom who lives in a picturesque shack? Will her little girl, who is going deaf from some exotic movie disease, get that $40,000 operation she needs? Want to lay odds?

Amid this brand of home-fried film noir, country star Randy Travis can get away with turning the old Roger Miller hit "King of the Road" into a folksy anthem to low-rent criminality. Without even winking or acknowledging how many times we've heard it before, the scammer-with-a-heart-of-gold can dust off an ancient con man's dictum: "You look 'em in the eye and make 'em believe." The moviemakers can even toss in the familiar old hand in the cowboy hat, "Double D" (James Gammon), a grifter so enslaved to his instincts that he barely knows it when he's scamming himself.

Somewhere in here, too, screenwriter Jim McGlynn and director Green dare to place our hero Bokky back in the graveyard where his wife and baby have lain since 1982. So transparent are these filmmakers' intentions--look 'em in the eye, make 'em believe--that you find yourself anticipating every turn in the road, whether it's deadly, romantic or devious. Take Boss Jack, the homespun Vito Corleone of the piece. All movie long he's sat on his butt back at the trailer park, simply looking dangerous in his old wool cap from County Cork and taking a hefty cut off the top every time the boys pull off a job. Don't you just know that Jack, too, will finally have to earn his keep? Of course he will. You know it from reel one, and it comes as no surprise. Hardly anything here does. Not even the sweet yearning in Bokky's heart.

But, ahhhh, what a thing of visual beauty this is. Say whatever else you will about The Bridges of Madison County, Unforgiven or even Twister, Jack Green is one of the finest directors of photography ever to peer through a lens. When his narrative skills catch up to his eyes--next movie, perhaps?--he just might become a filmmaker to reckon with. For now, he's not bad. And there isn't a gold earring or a tarot deck in sight.

Screenplay by Jim McGlynn. Directed by Jack Green. With Bill Paxton, Mark Wahlberg, Julianna Margulies and James Gammon.


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