Clay Pigeons (1998)

Clay Pigeons (1998)
  • Time: 104 min
  • Genre: Comedy | Crime
  • Director: David Dobkin
  • Cast: Vince Vaughn, Joaquin Phoenix, Janeane Garofalo


Clay (as in the title) is a young man in a small town who witnesses his friend kill himself because of the ongoing affair that Clay was having with the man’s wife. Feeling guilty, Clay now resists the widow when she presses him to continue with their sexual affairs. Clay befriends a troubling serial killer.

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  • He’s all legs, that Vince Vaughn. Long legs, baby face and boyish smile. He’s also very much a man, a quality in sharp contrast to the skinny, faintly effete mother’s boy Anthony Perkins embodied in Psycho. Vaughn does indeed portray Norman Bates in Gus Van Sant’s remake of Psycho. Foolish casting, you say? Then go see Clay Pigeons.

    In the morbidly offbeat comedy, Vaughn is Lester Long, a snakecharming salesman who materializes into Clay’s (Joaquin Phoenix) world. Clay has not been having a good life: his best friend Earl just found out that his deliciously slutty wife Amanda (the fabulously trashy Georgina Cates) has been sleeping with Clay. He commits suicide but plots it so that people will think he’s been murdered by Clay. “Leave me out of it,” drawls Amanda when Clay pleads for her help. So Clay is left to dispose of the body, making the suicide, which was planned to look like a murder, look like an accident instead. That’s body number one.

    Body number two is the naked form of Gloria, a waitress Clay dates. She expires on his waterbed courtesy of the Clay-stalking, gun-toting Amanda. There’s a fantastic scene during this time when Clay stands, his arm cocked and trembling, prepared to punch Amanda. But she stares him down with her laughing eyes and dirty, pouty mouth. “There’s a bond between us,” she purrs. “Earl saw to that.” So the lake becomes Gloria’s watery grave.

    So into this chaos Lester swaggers. When the two spot a dead body floating in the lake during a fishing trip, trouble truly begins. “Man overboard!” Lester cheers. They bring the body in and Lester convinces Clay to report it by himself. As Clay escorts Sheriff Mooney (Scott Wilson) and his men to the scene of yet another crime, the Sheriff sighs, “Promise you’ll stop finding dead people.” So right now Clay has way too many things on his mind. There’s Amanda, who’s still pursuing him and also now sleeping with Lester. There’s that inquisitive FBI Agent Shelby (Janeane Garofalo) sniffing around after yet another body turns up. Then Clay learns that the body found in the lake had been stabbed seven times. A serial killer is on the loose. Could it be Lester?

    Director David Dobkin keeps the film on the edge. A former music video director, Dobkin has a canny ear for background and accompanying music. Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never” is used to terrifying effect; it becomes a serenade to murder. His casting of Wilson is inspired. Wilson, who played one of the killers in In Cold Blood, now plays the arbiter of justice. Clay Pigeons does owe a great deal to In Cold Blood; it focuses on the underbelly of a small town where murder can happen in the great wide open.

    The performances couldn’t be any more perfect. The priceless Garofalo lends her dry wit and cutting delivery while also maintaining a depth of seriousness. “Your deputy’s name is Barney?” she marvels as the bumbling Barney (Vince Vieluf) nearly slips on a pool of blood. Her mating dance with Lester is another high point: city cynicism clashing with merciless charm.

    As for the star duo, it’s easy to see why Vaughn and Phoenix are such a perfect duo. Like Redford and Newman or Lemmon and Matthau, they complement and contradict each other. Vaughn is a man whose boyishness belies a darker nature, while Phoenix is a boy whose eccentric beauty betrays a childish innocence. Together, they seem like yin and yang. More precisely, one seems to be in the body of the other. Maybe God switched bodies.

    Both are extraordinary talents. Phoenix continues his astounding ways. In many respects, he’s a far superior actor than his late brother, River. His dark angel looks and gawky masculinity make him more believable in the roles he undertakes; River had yet to bloom into the appearance of full manhood when he was Joaquin’s age. Joaquin holds our interest with his perturbing intensity — you never quite know where he’ll take you but you’re willing to go. Vaughn is a delectable hoot. He charms us all right — how could he not — but seems all the sexier when he’s at his most dangerous. The boyish smile and that laugh, which borders on obnoxious, are utilized to skincrawling effect. I don’t advocate remakes but, seeing Vaughn’s wicked performance here, I’m now looking forward to Psycho. Who knows? Maybe Phoenix will put in a cameo as Mother.

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