1998, R, 104 min. Directed by David Dobkin. Starring Vince Vaughn, Janeane Garofalo, Joaquin Phoenix, Georgina Cates.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Oct. 2, 1998
In a perfect world, Janeane Garofalo would be in every movie. That way, when the rest of the show bogged down, we'd still have her morbid wit and wry spin to hold onto. The world isn't perfect, though, and neither is Clay Pigeons, a deceptively simple Nineties noir with its heart in the right place but not much else. Phoenix plays Clay Bidwell, a none-too-bright Montanan stuck in the vicious circle of small-town life. To keep things interesting, he's been having an affair with Amanda, his best friend's ill-tempered wife (Cates). When husband Earl finds out, he lures Clay out to a pasture on the pretext of knocking off a few beer bottles with the .38, only to kill himself and leave all the evidence pointing toward his wayward friend. Panicked, Clay manages to cover up the situation, but not before starting a chain of bloody events that eventually threatens half the town. Much more threatening, actually, is Vaughn as Lester Long, a trucker-cum-drifter who breezes into town and bonds with the frazzled Clay. Lester has evil written all over him in day-glo existential marker, but Clay can't see the boneyard for the corpses and quickly befriends this too-slick charmer, setting himself up for some serious trouble down the road. Dobkin, in his directorial debut, seems ready and willing to ply the conventions of film noir in the harsh Montana daylight, but Clay Pigeons never manages to reach the crucial suspense plateaus that noir demands. Instead, it feels more like a portrait of small-town life run amok, with the miscast Phoenix playing Good to Vaughn's Evil. Garofalo makes a blessed appearance in the second act as F.B.I. Agent Dale Shelby, in town to check on the progress of an unknown serial killer who's been carving up young ladies for some time. She's Clarise Starling's punky little sister, replete with barroom drinking binges and hotel room pot parties, more concerned with catching the killer than what anyone might think of her methods. When she's onscreen the film kicks into high gear; when she's off it, however, it's up to Vaughn and Phoenix to carry the picture and it just doesn't work. Vaughn's affectation of a whinnying, nervous giggle is more annoying than anything else, and only Cates, as the town bad girl, gets any mileage out of the one-note script. Dobkin has recruited John Lurie to fill in the gaps with an admittedly creepified score, but even that falls by the wayside as the third act ushers in some of the most ridiculous plot contrivances yet seen. There's more to noir filmmaking than sleazy men and wicked women, but Dobkin hasn't figured out what.