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Clay Pigeons

movie review by
Gary Johnson

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"I'm like a big fireworks show," says Lester Long (Vince Vaughn) in Clay Pigeons, and then he smiles from ear to ear. And he's right: when he enters a room, all eyes are on him. However, from his silly, affected drawl to his non-stop chatter, something about him isn't quite right. Maybe it's his goofy outfit--a white hat and a shirt with fancy stitching. Maybe it's his laugh, which comes far too easily--an irritating high-pitched squeal. Or maybe it's those moments when he says something a bit off color or a bit vicious and his mask slips just a little. But then he smiles and laughs and his blustery enthusiasm and charm starts stroking you again.

Lester Long is a marvelous creation. But is he in the right movie? (I'll get back to him in a minute.)

Essentially, Clay Pigeons is a thriller with a wicked sense of humor. It gives us Joaquin Phoenix as Clay, an auto mechanic in a quiet, isolated town named Mercer, Montana. He's been having an affair with his best friend's wife, Amanda (Georgina Cates), a hot-to-trot cauldron of self-centered demands. In the movie's first scene, Amanda's husband, Earl, confronts Clay about the affair and threatens to shoot him--unless Clay first shoots Earl. But won't that look like murder? That's the plan. However, when Clay refuses to pull the trigger, Earl kills himself with Clay's own gun. Clay's ready to go to the police if Amanda will back up his story, but Amanda can only think of herself and what it will do to her reputation when the entire town knows about her affair with Clay (as if the sluttish Amanda really gives a damn what anybody thinks.) So with no one to backup his story, Clay puts Earl in a truck and pushes him off a cliff. But it doesn't end that easily, not with Amanda refusing to leave him alone and demanding his sexual favors. What's a guy to do?

Thus enters Lester Long. He sees Clay at the local tavern when Amanda pleads/demands for Clay to let her return to his bed. When Clay slaps Amanda, Lester is mighty impressed and strikes up a friendship with Clay. Soon afterwards, they're fishing together--and discovering a floating body! And not long afterwards more bodies start to turn up. Unfortunately for Clay, all the clues point to him as the murderer, so an FBI Agent (Janeane Garofalo) soon lands on his trail. However, with Lester hanging around as his new best friend--"We got a special kind of friendship," says Lester--Clay's every move only gets him in more trouble.

Director David Dobkin (making his feature film debut) and screenwriter Matt Healy (also making his feature film debut) have fashioned an outrageous and wicked tale caught somewhere between The Twilight Zone and the cinema of Alfred Hitchcock. In particular, Clay Pigeons carries a tone somewhat similar to Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train. However, while Bruno (Robert Walker) in Strangers on a Train was clearly a dangerously off-kilter character, [SPOILERS COMING] Lester remains an enigma, a charming womanizer whose mask occasionally slips just enough that we begin to suspect the depths of his depravity: "There are some people out there that need killin'," he says. But the movie fails to examine the nature of his violent behavior. While Strangers on a Train points to Bruno's own sublimated homosexual tendencies and his overbearing father as factors leading to his anti-social behavior, Clay Pigeons gives us virtually nothing. Lester is simply evil. Why? The movie gives us no clues. Strangers on a Train doesn't delve deep into the psychology behind Bruno's murderous tendencies, but it at least gives us some hints and those hints help make us believe in Bruno's capacity for murder. However, at its core, Clay Pigeons is empty.

As much as I respect Vince Vaughn's audacious performance, the filmmakers keep us at arm's length away from Lester. And without examining Lester's motivations, Clay Pigeons becomes a simple-minded psycho-killer movie. Maybe the Coen Brothers, with their feeling for black comedy (as evidenced in their debut, Blood Simple), could have pulled this off, but director Dobkin and screenwriter Healy lack the conviction or the stylistic know how.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

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