Clay Pigeons [1998]

Set in Montana's Big Sky country, shot in Utah, lensed by Eric Alan Edwards (cinematographer of My Own Private Idaho)--no wonder it's hard to tell where Clay Pigeons lives, or where it's going. A Ridley Scott protégé previously at home in commercials and videos, debuting director David Dobkin aims to deliver us into the blackly comedic badlands of neo-noir, territory mined by the likes of Red Rock West and Fargo. Pigeons launches strongly, with several cruel turns of the screw. Out target-shooting, Clay Birdwell (Joaquin Phoenix) is hit with the news that his best pal knows he's been boffing his ur-slut wife (Georgina Cates) and could take Clay out on the spot, but chooses a creepier revenge--committing suicide in order to frame the guy who's cuckolded him. Naturally, Clay covers up the mess, thereby opening the film's can of very nasty worms. A slick, fast-talking cowboy (Vince Vaughn)--the funhouse-mirror-opposite of Phoenix's sweet, slow farmboy--turns up, and a string of ugly murders begins to play out. Once Vaughn's Lester Long is on the scene, spreading his psychotically giggling bonhomie, Dobkin's skin-deep riff on Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train pretty much belongs to him. The rest of the cast looks more or less like clay pigeons set up by a scattershot script: exceptions include the always-estimable Scott Wilson who transforms his caricature-prone Sheriff Mooney into a character of nuanced humanity, and Janeane Garofalo, as an urban-hip FBI agent, whose single-chick sarcasm goes down in flames when Lester unholsters those big guns of come-hither charm. John Lurie of Lounge Lizards fame contributes a distinctive score, but Elvis Presley acts as the film's patron saint in more ways than one: Clay Pigeons' sexiest, scariest wet work is choreographed to "It's Now or Never." --Kathleen Murphy

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