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CLAY PIGEONS (director: David Dobkin; screenwriter: Matt L. Healy; cinematographer: Eric Edwards; editor: Stan Salfas; cast: Joaquin Phoenix (Clay Birdwell), Vince Vaughn (Lester Long), Janeane Garofalo (Dale Shelby), Georgina Cates (Amanda ), Gregory Sporleder (Earl), Scott Wilson (Sheriff Mooney), Vince Vieluf (Deputy Barney), Monica Moench (Kimberly), Phil Morris (Agent Reynard), Nikki Arlyn (Gloria); Runtime: 104; Polygram; 1998)
“What might be likable to viewers not that discerning about plot or character study, is that this film was user friendly.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

“Clay Pigeons” tried hard to be a pleasant comedy/suspense story about a serial killer and a character study of some small town denizens jostled by the outsider FBI agents. It worked reasonably well for part of the film as dead bodies ‘amusingly’ came popping up unexpectedly in this sleepy Montana town, but then the story ran out of tricks and everything fell apart and the psychopathic woman hating slasher, Lester Long (Vaughn), became a tiresome portrayal.

Since it’s a story about clay pigeons — with the singular dictionary meaning for that slang term being, a person in a situation where he can be taken advantage of by others — the clay pigeon is the town’s auto mechanic, Clay Birdwell (Phoenix). He is considered by the locals to be a nice guy.

When Clay is target shooting with his best friend Earl (Sporleder), Earl confronts him with the news that his wife Amanda (Coates) told him she’s having an affair with him. Earl then tells him, I can’t live with that and comes up with this crazy idea of shooting himself in the leg and then killing himself, and making it so that Clay would be accused of the crime and have to serve prison time. Earl then carries out his insanely vindictive plan.

Clay goes back to town asking for help from Earl’s wife, the sexy Amanda, as we see her dressed in a see-through nightgown, wearing only red panties. But she tells Clay he’s on his own, she wants no one to know about her relationship with him. Clay then puts Earl in his pickup truck and pushes it down a hill, where it explodes. When Clay’s friend, Sheriff Mooney (Scott), comes to investigate, he fails to tell him the whole truth about what happened.

While playing pool, in a place aptly named Doc Holiday’s, Clay meets a garrulous cowboy, clad in full cowboy gear, including a fancy Stetson. The enigmatic cowboy, Lester Long, is a stranger in town and is impressed that Clay slapped Amanda when she tried to seduce him by the pool table. A friendship between the two develops, leading to a fishing expedition where a woman’s body that has been stabbed 7 times is discovered floating in the water.

A fatal friendship also develops between Lester and Amanda, as she will later on be killed by the psychopathic cowboy.

But, first the story gets more twisted when Clay refuses to see Amanda anymore and has sex with a waitress (Nikki) he picks up in town. The waitress is shot while in the middle of her sexual climax by the jealous and deranged Amanda, knowing Clay is not in a position to squeal. He is then forced to also dispose of the waitress’ body, which he dumps in the local lake.

The FBI comes to investigate all the seven murders in the state. The agents are the wry-humored Dale Shelby (Janeane Garofalo) and the efficient-looking Reynard (Morris), who are looking at Clay as a possible serial killer. The FBI believes all the murders are the work of one serial killer. What Garofalo brought to the film was some welcomed comic relief, much needed because this film was exhausted from all the contrivances and lack of adequate character study it provided. It was only through Garofolo’s sense of black comedy that the film was still bearable; and, at that, it was only barely bearable.

Clay is somewhat of an innocent, at least, as far as the murders go, but he certainly can’t be commended for being a truthful or moral person.

Everything gets resolved in the film’s anticlimax, that mercifully ends in an arrest, though some 30 minutes too late as far as I’m concerned. What might be likable to viewers not that discerning about plot or character study, is how user friendly it is. It also brought about a hearty guffaw or two. None of the actors were bad, bad, but none were memorable. It’s one of those films that is easily forgotten.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”