Clay Pigeons

CLAY PIGEONS. 1998

Director: David Dobkin

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl



Joaquin Phoenix is Clay Birdwell, who I suppose we were intended to embrace as the hero of this thing, worry about, root for, & relate to him, strictly cuz he's purdy. But shyte, he's a man so ignorant, so void of moral center, so eager to make stupid decisions that dig himself deeper, he's the kind of dufus who just kind of deserves awful things to happen to him.

When his best friend kills himself, Clay rigs a fiery car crash to cover it up, lest he be blamed for murder. When his jealous best friend's wife murders Clay's next one night stand, he covers it up for her, because otherwise she'd say he did it. And when a serial killer calling himself Lester (Vince Vaughn) rolls into the small Montana town he sizes up the village idiot & sets about to make him even more miserable than he already is.

Make no mistake, Joaquin turns in a good performance. He's totally convincing as the village idiot. But only another village idiot could ever root for such a character. It's pretty easy to manipulate a fool, so nothing clever about what the killer does to get him in trouble. If Clay survives the mess he's gotten himself into, it will be due to the efforts of other characters in the cast, since he's just too dim to do anything sensible in his own behalf.

Joaquin tries to play Clay sympathetically, but he remains in essence the kind of guy who sleeps with his best friend's wife, burns his best friend's body, throws away his lover's corpse like a piece of garbage, & withholds information about a serial killer so that more lives are put at risk. He's just a bad ignorant man, & the serial killer seems to know that, but nobody else does, not even (it seems) Matthew Healy, the fellow who wrote this messy script.

There's not anything particularly believable about the plot & no way the town cops or the intruding FBI would really think Clay was a serial killer of long standing, as there'd be no evidence of him being in the many places Vince Vaughn's character has been. So there's not much actual tension or suspense for Clay's dilemma, & as comedy it equally falls flat. The whole show relies on Clay being too damned stupid to do something sensible, as even one ounce of common sense would've resolved everything & turned the film into a short subject.

It's never in doubt that he'll get out of trouble in the end, a fact that is more annoying than a relief of tension; though if he had experienced injustice, that wouldn't've been satisfying either. The problem with this film is Clay is just such a worthless putz that he fails as a central character. Nothing that happens to him good or bad is of any concern. So while nobody is apt to want injustice for him, it also doesn't matter if he's cleared, given that his fate is of no earthly interest.

Vince Vaughn plays a so-so psycho but the performance is uneven. It isn't easy to make a black comedy psychopath genuinely funny while joyously stabbing women. Indeed nearly everything in the film that's supposed to be funny isn't very, though a deputy being named Barney (Vince Vieluf) provides the whole film (& the trailer advertising it) with one good laugh. Vince Vaughn's psycho brings more life to the story than Joaquin ever drums up, because psychopaths are pretty extreme characters to play, but that fact that it's all ultimately a joke doesn't play well, & Vaughn has never been the sort of actor who can save bad material.

Two character performances do stand out for their capacity to save bad material. Foremost is Janeane Garofalo turning in a spectacular performance worthy of Frances McDormand in Fargo (1996). She can give a line like "Your deputy is named Barney?" a lot of droll power that is not inherent to the writing. She's the FBI agent who has been pursuing the serial killer from place to place for some while, so will of course know very quickly Clay isn't him. She is dogged & cool, aloof & snotty, & conveys sufficient confidence that her character helps rob the story of tension over the fate of Clay. We never for a moment fret that she may come to the wrong conclusion.

It was rather startling to see how great Janeane can be, as to provide good acting from such an impoverished script is exactly the level of skill missing from Joaquin Phoenix & Vincent Vaughn's failed struggle to do likewise.

The second excellent character performance was the fatherly Sheriff, played by Scott Wilson with an edge of sweetness to his authority. He likewise is never convinced Clay is bad, so also contributes to the lack of suspense in this alleged suspense comedy. Wilson is so convincing as a small town lawman who cares about people. The "twist" ending (which is no twist at all, but it is at least an ending) involves his character in a way that was quite satisfying, & sometimes a good ending to a bad film is enough to make it worth watching, if only just.

There were only two successful moments in the film when the writing & directing mesh perfectly with the acting. The ending with Scott Wilson's chracter is one such scene. The other is when Garofalo's FBI character encounters the serial killer in the bar & only realizes who he was after he leaves -- that encounter & their conversation was so layered & nuanced & tense & funny it made me wonder if Robin Hood had come into the screenwriter's life that day & written that scene for him.

For these two sequences the whole film is just about worthwhile, plus for any viewer who might be stupid enough to mistake Clay for the worthwhile human being he's not, one might be left with the false impression of a pretty good movie. The sense of the film being a success hinges on the percentage of viewers who can relate to & care about the amoral village idiot, & I worry there are plenty out there just like him.

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl



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