Having nothing to do with skeet shooting or sporting clays, CLAY PIGEONS creates a sort of rural, Western, daytime film noir and mixes it with wit and humor in a biting black comedy about murder and cover-up. Continuing his black comedy work as previously seen in TO DIE FOR, Joaquin Phoenix plays Clay, an innocent man caught up in lies and deception.
Starting literally with a bang, Clay and his buddy Earl (Gregory Sporleder) shoot beer bottles. Seconds later, Earl threatens to shoot Clay for having an affair with his wife, Amanda (Georgina Cates). Instead, Earl shoots himself after planting clues to make it look like Clay murdered him. Clay drives Earls truck off a cliff with Earl’s dead body in it. The truck explodes, and the police, including Sheriff Mooney (Scott Wilson), are unable to see that Earl shot himself.
Immediately following this, Amanda comes onto Clay very strongly, acting as if nothing happened. Clay doesn’t want to do anything with her. When he slaps Amanda in a bar for flirting with him, a new stranger named Lester Long (Vince Vaughn) sees the whole thing. Lester befriends Clay and eventually asks Amanda out. To forget Amanda, Clay goes out with a local waitress and goes fishing with Lester. The fishing jaunt is spoiled by their discovery of a body, and other bodies begin to appear. FBI agent Dale Shelby (Janeane Garofalo) comes into town and believes Clay may be responsible for the deaths. However, Clay knows the secret and must find a way to bring the killer to justice while exonerating himself.
Though not entirely original, CLAY PIGEONS benefits from a good script, energetic acting and its lonely Montana location. It has echoes of THE LAST PICTURE SHOW featuring small town gloom and THE TROUBLE WITH HARRY, the Hitchcock film which had a dead body constantly popping up. After TROUBLE IN PARADISE, Vaughn again shows himself to be a talent to watch, but his fierce, laughing persona may soon get old. (He is scheduled to appear as Norman Bates in a remake of PSYCHO, released this Christmas.)
CLAY PIGEONS, however, suffers from many obscenities and some disturbing images of people being murdered during fornication. This isn’t lovemaking. It is death making. Obviously, the writer and director wanted to create a shock with these scenes, but like SPECIES, it applies evil to a very sacred and special God-created activity. There are also bloody bodies and bloody knives. Finally, though very brief, an FBI agent’s credibility is destroyed when she smokes pot confiscated from a victim’s home.
While never directly a criminal, Clay exacerbates the situations by never coming clean. He is strung along by Lester, resulting in more murders. Clay is able to prevent one murder, but on another occasion, lets the killer go. Hence, he is not really a hero, but an anti-hero, an ineffectual man unable to control the circumstances around him. Eventually, justice is served with Clay’s help, but only after the local sheriff intervenes.
CLAY PIGEONS will not go down as a great movie of 1998, but it may act as an attractive calling card for first-time feature filmmaker David Dobkin. With clever writing, surprises, fine locations, and earnest acting, this sometimes grisly thriller isn’t moral viewing, nor is it groundbreaking filmmaking, but justice and entertainment are served. Hitchcock was able to take murder and make it entertaining, and this story comes close to his knife-edge walk of mixing humor and death, but because it crosses the line, it eventually fails to be great.
(Pa, C, LLL, VVV, SS, NN, A, DD, M) Pagan worldview of crime solving with a Christian prayer at a funeral; 64 obscenities & 17 profanities; moderate but grisly violence including man smacks woman, suicide with gun, man shoots own leg, threats with gun, threats with knife, woman stabbed to death, & woman shot to death during fornication; two depicted instances of fornication & implied adultery; upper male nudity, upper female nudity, man & woman in underwear, & rear female nudity; alcohol use; smoking & brief image of pot smoking by FBI agent; and, deception & a few bloody images of corpses.