Courtesy Photo
104 minutes | Rated: R
Opened: Friday, September 25, 1998
Directed by David Dobkin

Starring Vince Vaughn, Joaquin Phoenix, Janeane Garofalo, Georgina Cates & Scott Wood


Occassionally cinematic with several outdoor scenes, but for the most part it's the oddball characters that drive the movie. Just pay attention to faces.

Serial killer comedy a tour de force for "Swingers" star

If Vince Vaughn ever becomes the kind of legendary actor to whom repertory movie houses dedicate retrospectives, "Clay Pigeons" will be the movie everyone claims as their favorite from his early career.

Vaughn's career took off with in 1996 with the release of "Swingers" and he made an indelible impression in August's "Return to Paradise" as an American on trial in Malaysia. He is certainly destined to be remembered more for stepping into Anthony Perkins' mama's boy drag in Gus Van Sant's remake of "Psycho" (out in December) than for anything else he's likely to do the rest of his life.

But in "Clay Pigeons," with a swagger, a wink and a wicked grin, he turns a likely multiple-murdering cowboy into the most appealingly smarmy lady-killer since Jack Nicholson in "The Witches of Eastwick."

Vaughn plays Lester Long, a conspicuously cocky trucker with a 10-gallon hat and a belt buckle you could fry an egg on. The picture thrives on this cowboy's hick charm, and Vaughn is absolutely perfect for the role of a guy who can get away with saying "Easy there, vixen!" to a girl in public. And he only gets better when Lester turns out to be more than a little whacked.

Lester befriends Clay (Joaquin Phoenix), a nervous Montana hayseed whose best friend has just committed suicide and framed him for the killing after discovering Clay had been servicing his hot-to-trot young wife (sexy, trampy Georgina Cates).

Trying to cover up the death, Clay's life only gets more complicated after the remorseless widow throws him over for Lester, the new stud in town, then turns up dead herself.

To make room for Vaughn's larger-than-life character, Phoenix gives a subtly comic performance as he begins to panic over the arrival of a sardonic FBI agent (Janeane Garofalo) looking into what seems to be a rash of foul play deaths and disappearances in the area.

Garofalo (who after this role should really consider becoming the comic relief on "The X-Files") is perfectly in her element here and gets off some of the movie's best lines -- rebuffing advances from Lester during her investigation and rolling her eyes at the local law ("Barney, could you not poke the body with a stick?"). But like Phoenix, she's also very understated about it, letting Vaughn's loose cannon cowboy drive the movie.

"Clay Pigeons" was helmed by commercial and music video director David Dobkin, who distills many conventions of the murder mystery genre, the serial killer movie and the countryfied comedy (the incidental music could have been lifted from "The Dukes of Hazard") into a tense but tongue-in-cheek whodunit.

While the script has a number of gaps of logic, mostly involving Garofalo's investigation, "Clay Pigeons" is the kind of movie in which you're just having too much fun to care. And most of the credit goes to Vaughn, who seems all the more clever for finding a role which turns that inherently creepy side of his persona into the his biggest asset.

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