Why isn’t Bill Paxton a bigger star than he is? Sure, he’s been in some of the biggest movies of all time: Twister and Aliensand True Lies and now Titanic. But I bet most moviegoers couldn’t put a name to his hunky everyman face. And certainly most casual movie fans haven’t seen his two best performances, as a small-town Arkansas sheriff in 1992’s One False Move and as a con man in last year’s Traveller (also starring Mark Wahlberg, Julianna Margulies).
In some of his more conventional roles, Paxton’s sly talent is hinted at. He’ll forever be Hudson shouting “Game over, man!” in Aliens — but watch his face as he tells Ripley to put Newt in charge of their rescue. Could Bruce Willis have pulled off the oily car salesman in True Lies without succumbing to self-parody? Paxton crumbles so beautifully under the abuse of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Arnold that we end up actually feeling sorry for him.
But a film like Traveller makes you realize that all along, Paxton has inhabited his characters so well that his ability is transparent. Here he plays Bokky, a con man of a band of nomads known as travellers.
[A bit of background is in order. The travellers originated in Ireland — perhaps within the last few hundred years — and they are a distinct minority there even today. The travellers are not related to the Romany Gypsies, but in some ways the two groups are similar — both are nomadic, have their own languages and customs, are infamous (perhaps unjustly so) as con artists and thieves, and are the victims of discrimination and often violence. Groups of Irish travellers have immigrated to the United States — there are probably 5,000 to 7,000 ethnic-Irish travellers living in the southern states. I’ve been able to find few online resources about Irish travellers: try here and here and here, if you’re interested in learning more. I wasn’t able to find anything online specifically about American travellers.]
Bokky is not the most likeable of guys. He roams the rural Carolinas, cheating the unsuspecting by playing on their greed and cheapness — a favorite scam involves “re-tarring” driveways and roofs with crankcase oil. Bokky hooks up with Pat O’Hara (Wahlberg), son of a traveller who was exiled from the group for marrying an outsider, and teaches Pat his wicked ways and what it means to be a traveller.
It’s after an elaborate scam that gets bartender Jean (Margulies) fired from her job that Bokky’s surety starts to crack, and that’s when Paxton begins to let us inside Bokky. The plot sometimes falls back on the contrived, but Paxton carries it all off with such charm and sincerity that it’s only later that you realize you’ve been had. One moment in particular — in which we learn of a major trauma in Bokky’s past — is rather clichéd in retrospect, but Paxton’s raw emotion had me in tears.
Traveller unfortunately devolves into a final, violent confrontation that feels out of step with the tone of the rest of the movie, but that’s no reason to skip this one. Your local Blockbuster might have one copy of Traveller — don’t miss it.