Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Murder in Montana

By Noah Masterson

OCTOBER 12, 1998:  Hollywood churns out many movies about small-town living. The mainstream film community seems obsessed with towns that have only one Wal-Mart. Perhaps it's because the denizens of small towns, particularly those of the white trash variety, seem like easy targets; their ranks are not sufficient enough to fight back.

Clay Pigeons is set in small-town Montana. The locals drink, shoot guns, gossip and do other stereotypical small-town activities. One such local, Earl, has learned that his best friend, Clay (Joaquin Phoenix), has been fooling around with his wife. Earl confronts Clay; the two have it out over a bunch of beers, and Earl winds up dead. Clay seeks help from Earl's wife, Amanda (Georgina Cates)--the bitchiest femme fatale you'll ever see--only to find her completely unwilling to help. She still wants Clay to visit for their weekly trysts, however. Clay doesn't want a murder rap; Amanda doesn't want people to talk; Clay is forced to dispose of his friend's body.

Fast forward a bit and enter Lester Long (Vince Vaughn), a smooth-talking cowboy from out of town. Vince Vaughn's arrival 30 minutes into the picture injects some much-needed life. In fact, he steals every scene he's in. Without spoiling too much of the plot, Clay and Lester become fast friends and bodies begin piling up around them. The FBI intervenes and Janeane Garofalo, miscast as one of the agents, shows up midway into the film to do her usual smirking, "I'm-so-ironic" thing. Charming as she can be sometimes, here she's a one-trick pony. Clay becomes the prime suspect in a whole slew of murders, and the FBI and local sheriff investigate. Meanwhile, Lester cavorts with every girl in town. The plot takes enough twists and turns to retain interest, but just barely.

One thing Clay Pigeons has going for it is its slowly building momentum. The first 20 minutes of the film seem stilted and dull. Gradually, though, as the story gets deeper into small-town, Twin Peaks-style weirdness, the viewer is sucked in. Weird does not always equal funny, however, and for a dark comedy (as the film is billed), there aren't many laughs. Aside from a few clever lines from Lester, Clay Pigeons is gloomy, violent and not for all tastes. In more than one scene, for example, a woman is graphically murdered while having sex.

Phoenix, who may be a recent graduate of the Harrison Ford School of Acting, deadpans his way through the movie with odd charisma. Vaughn is his opposite, all swagger and charm and a forced, over-the-top giggle. As foils for one another, the two leads work well, and their strong performances carry the plot over its frequent speed bumps.

First-time feature film director David Dobkin uses a few too many tricks from his days making music videos: quick cutting and zooms that seem incongruous with the pace of the film. The screenplay by Matt Healy (another first-timer)--which won an annual contest from The Writer's Market, an L.A.-based screenwriting group--is self-conscious and inconsistent. The filmmakers never decide whether they're aiming for a cinéma vérité portrayal of small town life or poking fun at it. And that's what Clay Pigeons is--a film that can't make up its mind, and a film that will give viewers trouble making up theirs.

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