New-to-movies subjects are hard to come by, but Traveller has one: the inbred world of Irish grifters living in the backwoods of the American rural South. Clannish con artists descended from the Irish Tinkers, they fan out across the countryside pulling bogus home-repair jobs on unsuspecting, mostly elderly folk, and rake in the dough.

This all sounds like great movie material, but the film, except in flashes, doesn't do it justice. The script, by Jim McGlynn, doesn't draw on our fascination with this closed subculture. A 1996 Dateline report on the Travellers detailed how they operated, how they closed themselves off from scrutiny and married off their children sometimes as early as 11. But that report was more informative than anything in Traveller, which skimps the ethnographic stuff and cooks up a plot that comes to resemble a cross between a David Mamet con-job scenario and Straw Dogs. Some of the cons are fun to watch, and all sorts of fine rural details capture the eye, but the overall effect is too familiar for such an unfamiliar scene.

Bill Paxton plays Bokky, a Traveller who takes under his wing Pat O'Hara (Mark Wahlberg), whose father was cast out of the clan for marrying an outsider. Bokky and Pat pull small-time jobs, including fleecing an attractive bartender (Julianna Margulies), before setting up for a big-time score with the assistance of a wayward Traveller named Double D (James Gammon).

As long as we're with Bokky and Pat and Double D, the film has an aberrant charm. Jack Green, a cinematographer (Unforgiven, Twister) making his directorial debut, has a limber way with these actors. He brings out in them a folkloric, tall-tale quality. Paxton has a rangy, easygoing appeal that works in just about anything: From One False Move to Apollo 13 to Twister, he draws you into his decency. Paxton is one of the rare actors who can make ordinary-man heroism believable. And he's such a generous performer that he shines a light on his costars. Gammon especially seems tickled by the glow.

But the hokum gets awfully thick in these backwoods when Bokky falls for the barmaid and it turns out her partially deaf daughter needs cash for an ear operation, and then the bad guys move in with tooth and claw...and on and on. The jagged melodrama jangles the fine naturalistic touches. The people who made Traveller are caught in the dilemma of making an outside-the-Hollywood-loop movie while trying to stay enough inside the loop to recoup their costs. It's a hybrid effort. If you cut a path through these Southern backwoods, it'll take you straight to the Hollywood sign.

Bill Paxton, Mark Wahlberg, Julianna Margulies, James Gammon, Luke Askew. Written by Jim McGlynn. Directed by Jack Green. Now showing.


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