I’m not sure, but I think the moral of Clay Pigeons is: When your best friend commits suicide right in front of you after setting it up to look like you murdered him because you’re screwing around with his wife and he wants revenge, the best thing to do is blow up his pickup with the body in it. (Be sure to previously arrange for your best friend to be a loser whom the sheriff always suspected would come to no good end.)
See, Clay Bidwell (Joaquin Phoenix) was doing the nasty with Earl’s wife Amanda (Georgina Cates), a piece of work if I ever saw one. There’s not much else to do in tiny Mercer, Montana, but screw around, it seems. So, okay, fine — whatever floats your boat. But poor dumb Clay isn’t too good at choosing his friends. Earl’s a suicidal maniac; Amanda is, in the understatement of the year from Sheriff Mooney (Scott Wilson), “not the nicest person in the world”; and Clay’s new pal Lester Long (Vince Vaughn), who jokingly calls himself “Lester the Molester,” is a serial killer who gets his kicks siccing the police on, of all people, poor dumb Clay.
Clay Pigeons isn’t a great film — it’s black and it’s a comedy, but never enough of either — but it is supremely interesting to watch. If nothing else, it demonstrates that the incredible talent displayed by Vaughn and Phoenix in Return to Paradise — as well the palpable chemistry between them — was not a fluke. These are two guys to watch.
Vaughn’s serial killer is seductive and scary all at once. Where he conserved the use of his gorgeous smile in Paradise, he here bandies it about maniacally, his constant giggling seeming to hint at a barely constrained hysteria. As slowly and as deliberately as he moves across the screen, it still seems as if his rangy body might burst into a frenzied fit at any moment, sending his impossibly long limbs flailing. And Lester’s charm is undeniable — you don’t have to wonder how he lures his young female victims to their doom.
Phoenix’s Clay is a dope, to be sure, and fully responsible for his own misfortunes. He’s a pawn who lets himself get pushed around by everyone he knows, and yet Phoenix doesn’t let Clay collapse under all the pressure, manages to give Clay just a little bit of the backbone he needs to keep from being totally subsumed. A less physical actor than Vaughn, Phoenix’s acting is all in his eyes, his gaze darting back and forth as he feels himself drowning under stronger personalities or lids squeezed shut as he contemplates yet another personal disaster.
That Vaughn and Phoenix have created completely different kinds of characters from Paradise — and once again inhabit their complex, not altogether sympathetic creations — is a testament not only to their craft but to their approaches to their careers. They’re both interested in challenging acting roles and quirky characters. And I hope they stay that way.