Two men are drinking beer and using the empties as target practice
 when suddenly one trains his gun on the other and accuses him of sleeping
 with his wife. Not only that, instead of killing his rival, the cuckold plans
 to commit suicide but the circumstances will seem like murder. Have I got
 your attention? This is merely the opening of
CLAY PIGEONS, a seemingly
 unclassifiable film.

         Mixing elements of the blackest comedy with murder, serial killers,
 law enforcement investigations, romance, jealous — you name it, this film
 probably has it. Now, you may be thinking, it sounds like the movie
 is overstuffed if anything. But that's its selling-point: it isn't. David Dobkin
 in his feature directorial debut manages to walk the fine lines between
 genres milking Matt Healy's script to the hilt. It doesn't hurt that Dobkin
 also has a dream cast, including Joaquin Phoenix, Vince Vaughn, Janeane
 Garofalo, Scott Wilson and Georgina Cates, to name but the principal
 players. Add in director of photography Eric Edwards whose seminal work
 for Gus Van Sant informs this feature (some may say a bit too much — my
 main quibble is a tendency to include shots of lovely cloud formations:
 once or twice is fine, more is pushing it) and a hip soundtrack and the
 ingredients are there for a good time.

         One of the major positives about
CLAY PIGEONS is the way Dobkin
 and Healy tread a fine line between making the audience react with
 laughter yet squirm, sometimes simultaneously.

         Phoenix portrays Clay Bidwell — the cheating friend of the opening.
 He's not the smartest dude on the planet and he seemingly has a knack
 for getting involved with the wrong people. Yet, there's something about
 him that makes you root for him. Like a Hitchcock hero — he's a man who
 becomes swept up in circumstances beyond his control. Romantically, he's
 in over his head with Amanda (Cates) who is far from a grieving widow.
 After an all too public spat with her, Clay is befriended by one Lester
 "the Molester" Long (Vaughn), a slick, fast-talking truck driver. Pretty soon,
 these two have bonded over much beer and become drinking buddies.
 Oh, yeah! Did I mention Clay has a penchant for finding dead bodies?
 That makes the local sheriff (Wilson) and an intrepid FBI agent (Garofalo)
 suspicious. Particularly when one of the bodies is identified as a victim of
 a serial killer. To reveal any more of the plot and its twists and turns
 would be unfair.

         While he has credits as a music video and commercials director,
 Dobkin manages to avoid the pitfalls of colleagues who favor style over
 substance (someone like Michael Bay or Alex Proyas, for example). He
 displays an assured hand with the camera and elicits strong performances
 from his cast. Yet his background can be notices in the details: the
 painterly evocation of the town and its gorgeous natural surroundings,
 the choice of music on the soundtrack which enhances set pieces, the
 placement of the camera in scenes. Under his strong guidance the actors
 deliver exceptionally.

         The handsome Phoenix brings the right mixture of brooding
 intensity and naiveté to make his character believable. He has perhaps
 the most difficult wrong playing a fundamentally decent person who
 keeps making wrong decisions that spin out of control.

         Playing off Phoenix's strengths is Vaughn, who is loose and wild
 as the glib Lester. Frankly, I never saw the appeal of this actor before
 this film. I found him a bit obvious in
SWINGERS (whereas every woman
 I know who saw that film fell in love with him) and in much of his other
 work, he seemed to be holding back. With this character, Vaughn
 lets go and dominates his scenes. One senses the underpinnings of
 this slightly mysterious man with a "cowboy" persona and for the first
 time, I could see what others did in terms of his sex appeal and charisma.

         Garofalo has never been better. As the primary female character,
 she lends strength to her role as a dedicated FBI agent — but like every
 character in the film, she bends the rules, packing up marijuana from a
 murder scene which she smokes in her hotel room. Garofalo has two
 stunning scenes — one in which she's receiving a pizza delivery (which
 has to been seen for the expression on her face) and the other in a bar
 where Vaughn flirts with her. The palpable chemistry between them
 sears the screen. Scott Wilson has always been impressive and it's a
 pleasure to see the sweet-faced killer from the original
 has developed into a sturdy character player. For me, the other real gem
 is the performance of Georgina Cates as the slutty, strong-willed widow.
 I can hardly believe this sexpot is the same actress (then billed as Clare
 Woodgate) who used to play the troubled teenager on one of my favorite
2 Point 4 Children and then starred in AN AWFULLY BIG
. Adopting a flawless American accent, the actress was
 truly relishing the chance to play trashy vindictiveness. She seems
 to be having a great deal of fun by not taking things too seriously.
 If you approach this film with that same spirit, you will not be disappointed.

Rating:                  B
© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.