Clay Pigeons

“Clay Pigeons” takes place in small Montana town where everyone knows everyone else’s business. That’s why it should come as a no surprise to Clay (Joaquin Phoenix) when his best friend accuses him of having an affair with his wife.


Unfortunately for Clay, his best friend doesn’t plan to kill him. Instead, he kills himself, leaving a trail that implicates Clay. Poor Clay. He thought he was going to spend the afternoon shooting the breeze and beer bottles with his best friend. Now he has to come up with a plan to get rid of the body.

Thus begins first time director David Dobkin’s quirky comedy-thriller “Clay Pigeons.” “Clay Pigeons” is an audacious debut, a black comedy filled with many unexpected laughs and great performances. Working from Matthew L. Healy’s pleasurable screenplay, Dobkin’s creates a wicked little film that puts a new spin of familiar themes.

Clay manages to cover up his friend’s suicide, but then has to contend with the hot-to-trot widow Amanda (a very sassy Georgina Cates), who wants to pick up exactly where the two left off. Clay tries to calm her down by claiming that the body isn’t even cold yet, which is funny because Clay ended up toasting the poor guy in a staged wreck to cover his tracks.

Now Clay is being hounded by Amanda, whom he tries to avoid. When she tries to pick him up at the local watering hole, he ends up slapping her in the face. Bad move. Nothing is worse than a spurned horny widow.

So it only makes sense that Amanda break in on Clay and a local waitress having sex, and plug both the waitress and the water bed full of lead. Oh boy. Now Clay has to get rid of another body. For someone who has yet to kill anyone, Clay sure seems to spend a lot of his free time disposing of bodies.

In his spare time, Clay meets trucker Lester Long (Vince Vaughn) in a bar, and they strike up a friendship. One day while fishing, they come across a body in the lake. Clay is mortified (he thinks it’s the waitress), while Lester is intrigued by the find.

An autopsy reveals that the victim was stabbed to death, letting Clay off the hook, but opening up a whole new can of worms. If the body wasn’t the dead waitress, who was it? And why did Lester ask Clay to exclude him when he talks to the police?

As if Clay didn’t have enough problems, he learns that Lester and Amanda are hitting the sheets. He warns Lester that Amanda is a monster, but neither have no clue that Lester is actually a serial killer, and that the body discovered in the lake was his handy work.

When Amanda ends up dead, and the waitress pops up in the lake, the FBI is brought in. They’re represented by agent Shelby (Janeane Garofalo, the best thing about the film) and her assistant Agent Reynard (Phil Morris). Clay becomes their first suspect, but is vouched for by the local sheriff (Scott Wilson).

Clay and Lester (not his real name, natch) develop a special bond, one sealed by horrible crimes. Clay wants the nightmare to stop and agrees to cooperate with the FBI, but they can’t find any trace of Lester Long. Even worse, the kitchen knife used to kill Amanda is found in Clay’s house.

It becomes a game between the two, a move that reminded me of the film “The Hitcher.” In that film, naive motorist C. Thomas Howell had to wise up in order to defeat killer hitchhiker Rutger Hauer.

In “Clay Pigeons,” sweet, good natured Clay is forced to go through the same transformation. Through necessity, Clay must put himself on the same playing field as the killer. That strategy sets up some of the film’s best moments, including a confrontation in the jail between Lester and Clay while the deputy sleeps in the next room.

Joaquin Phoenix has come a long way in short time. His characters show more depth and understanding. Acting is about more than just saying the lines and hitting the marks. It’s about making us believe in the character and their motivations. You instantly feel sorry for Clay, and as the evidence piles up against him, you want to reach out and help him.

The film’s most daring performance comes from Vince Vaughn, who makes Lester such a charismatic, likeable good old boy. You desperately want to like Lester, but as presented, you just know he’s going to be trouble. Vaughn avoids that pothole by making Lester so enjoyable to watch. When he comes strutting out of Amanda’s front door in his underwear to confront Clay, you just know Lester is going to get some.

Janeane Garofalo is the best thing about “Clay Pigeon.” As written by Healy and directed by Dobkin, her Agent Shelby is smart, funny, concise and very human. Garofalo does wonderful things with the dialogue, and delivers the lines as only she can. Her wonderful asides always bring a smile. Even at her most vulnerable, Garofalo shows a professionalism that proves she’s always in charge.

The supporting cast is colorful, especially Scott Wilson as the wise, old Sheriff who knows his small town better than the big city Feds. Vince Vieluf has some interesting moments as the deputy who can’t seem to keep his eyes open (good for the killer, bad for Clay), while Georgina Cates shines as the wicked widow who just can’t seem to get enough.

Excellent tech credits, an eclectic musical score peppered with some unique song choices, and tight direction and writing combine to make “Clay Pigeons” a debut worthy of praise.

FEATS OF “CLAY”

CLAY PIGEONS

Vince Vaughn, Janeane Garofalo, Joaquin Phoenix, Georgina Cates, Phil Morris, Scott Wilson, Vince Vieluf in a film directed by David Dobkin. Rated R. 104 Min.

LARSEN RATING: $6



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