Movie Review: Clay Pigeons (1998)
“Lester Long never forgets a friend”
Clay Pigeons (1998)
Director: David Dobkin
Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Vince Vaughn, Janeane Garofalo
Synopsis: Things spiral out of control when a man witnesses his friend commit suicide over the affair he’s having with the man’s wife.
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WARNING! This review contains SPOILERS!
A young Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator, Hotel Rwanda) plays a stud named Clay whose best friend commits suicide after he discovers Clay has been sleeping with his wife and makes it look as though Clay has killed him. All this happens in an opening couple of minutes which really grab your attention. When Clay realises that his friend’s sluttish wife isn’t going to give him any help, he disposes of the body alone. It looks like he’s got away with it as well seeing as the local police – a doe-eyed, laid-back sheriff and his eager but dim deputy – know the victim so well that they’re inclined to believe Clay’s assessment that he got drunk same as every Sunday and accidentally drove over a cliff edge. But then the grieving widow gets jealous when Clay wants nothing more to do with her and she sees him getting off with the waitress in their small town café. Before you know it, Clay has another dead body to despatch (and a leaky water bed to repair).
All this happens in the film’s first couple of reels, by which time it has veered dangerously towards farce with the murder of the pert waitress in Clay’s bed. There should be some kind of quota for murders in small American towns – no more than, say, one every hour of screen time to keep things credible – otherwise Hicksville USA starts looking like Beirut on a bad day. Anyway, around about then Vince Vaughn (Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, Hacksaw Ridge) makes an appearance and the film slowly goes off on a completely different tack. The twists continue to come at a rapid pace, but what began as a black comedy of small town intrigue and petty jealousy becomes a more conventional ‘serial killer in our midst’ thriller.
Serial killers in movies tend to come in two guises: they’re either socially inept loners with low self-esteem, or they’re swaggering, charismatic rogues at whose feet potential victims fall. Vaughn’s Lester Long (‘Lester the Molester’) falls firmly into the latter character, charming even the unwitting female FBI agent (Janeane Garofolo) on his trail. Many movie killers also have a personal quirk that proves their downfall, and Lester is no exception. However, Clay is so dim and passive that he’s really no match for Lester, so the ending rings a little untrue. A braver movie might have had Lester moving on, leaving us to ponder on the fact that to a degree it’s the lowering of our own moral standards that enables the likes of Lester to operate relatively freely.
Vaughn outshines Phoenix in every scene they share, which is no mean feat. He exudes an effortless charm edged with a hint of menace that tips over every now and then to reveal the insanity lurking beneath the smooth veneer. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, and while Vaughn isn’t entirely successful he’s still pretty good. Phoenix gets little to do other than look scared or stupid, and it’s unlikely he would have accepted such a role a few years later when his career had really taken off. Although there’s a noir-ish, Jim Thompson feel to the film, the director resists the temptation to fill the screen with menacing shadows – two deaths take place in bright daylight, another by seductive lamplight.
Clay Pigeons is a clever little movie which will keep you watching until the final credits, even though its killer opening means you’ll probably feel it lost its way a little by the end.
(Reviewed 21st October 2011)