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(1998) (Joaquin Phoenix, Vince Vaughn) (R)

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Black comedy: A young man's life unravels as the local sheriff and an FBI agent begin to suspect his involvement in the deaths of several of his acquaintances.
Clay Bidwell (JOAQUIN PHOENIX) is a Montana gas station attendant who's having an affair with his best friend's wife, Amanda (GEORGINA CATES). When the despondent Earl (GREGORY SPORLEDER) kills himself and frames Clay for the murder, the young man finds Amanda of no help and thus disposes of the body. Reporting this to Sheriff Mooney (SCOTT WILSON) and his deputy, Barney (VINCE VIELUF), Clay nervously thinks he's put this mess behind him.

Even so, Amanda continues to make amorous advances at Clay until he eventually strikes her, an action that draws the attention of Lester Long (VINCE VAUGHN), a cowboy who's just passing through town and thinks Clay did the right thing. Eventually, however, Amanda takes matters into her own hands and kills a woman with whom Clay's having sex. Finding himself once again stuck in a bad situation, Clay takes that body and dumps it in the local lake, afraid to report Amanda due to her knowledge that Clay covered up Earl's death.

Later, and after quickly becoming loose friends, Lester and Clay discover a floating body while on a fishing trip. Stating that he desperately needs to get back to work, Lester has Clay report the body. This not only concerns Sheriff Mooney, but it soon draws the attention of FBI agent Dale Shelby (JANEANE GAROFALO) and her partner, agent Renard (PHIL MORRIS), who are hot on the trail of a serial killer.

After the death of another woman, Clay suddenly finds himself the prime suspect. When he tries to tell the FBI that Lester may be their man, they can find neither hide nor hair of him. As Clay sinks deeper into trouble, he must also contend with the killer who has his own unique plan to get Clay out of this mess.

If they're fans of someone in the cast, or of black comedy films such as "Fargo," there's a good chance they just might.
For strong scenes of sexuality, language and violence.
  • JOAQUIN PHOENIX plays the chain smoking young man who's having an affair with his best friend's wife. Upon that friend's suicide, Clay finds himself deeper in trouble with the law as he becomes the prime suspect in a serial murder spree.
  • VINCE VAUGHN plays a charming and friendly cowboy who turns out to be the smoking and cussing serial killer.
  • JANEANE GAROFALO plays the no-nonsense FBI agent who smokes what appears to be a joint earlier discovered at a crime scene, but otherwise is a decent role model.
  • GEORGINA CATES plays the adulterous wife who has an affair with Clay, continues to pester him, kills another woman, and has sex with Lester.


    OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
    If you like your comedy blackened like an extremely well-done and gristle-filled steak, then "Clay Pigeons" may just be the picture for you. Reminiscent of the Oscar-nominated picture, "Fargo" in tone, but not quite as clever or well-made, this film similarly takes a nonchalant approach to using murder as a prime source of its comedy.

    So-called black humor often runs the fine line between being funny or coming off as sick and offensive. While some viewers will obviously find the proceedings distasteful at best, for the most part the dark and edgy comedy works and is occasionally morbidly funny despite the film not being as good as it could have been.

    Featuring an eclectic mix of songs that permeate and often humorously accentuate the plot, including some old Elvis tunes, the film also features a fictional town populated with the now standard and diverse group of richly drawn, but obviously not realistically portrayed cast of characters.

    To use Hollywood parlance that's now infiltrated everyday conversations, the film doesn't hesitate to "cut to the chase" and immediately drops us into the story from minute one. As such, the plot is quick to unfold and deliver its exposition simultaneously, although a major twist of sorts takes a little longer to develop.

    While certain elements and other developments occasionally strain credibility, let alone plausibility -- such as the whole bit dealing with Clay reporting the body he and Lester found in a lake where he recently dumped the body of his murdered lover -- for the most part such matters aren't bad enough so as to horribly distract the moviegoer or derail the film's momentum.

    The film suffers somewhat, however, from not taking the black humor far enough. If that genre's going to be used, it had better be done right and taken to the necessary extremes. While the picture occasionally flirts with the material going that far, it never quite reaches that pinnacle of being charred or blackened enough to fully satiate fans of the genre. Filmmakers need to remember that once you're played your cinematic hand that shows a humorous take on the macabre, it's not very likely you'll scare away audiences by pushing the limits (the wood chipper scene in "Fargo" being a prime example).

    To their credit, first time filmmakers director David Dobkin and screenwriter Matt Healy have included a few such scenes, although they're extremely tame in comparison. Not only do we have the widow nonchalantly throwing a clump of rock-filled dirt onto her recently deceased husband's coffin, but also an FBI agent telling a deputy --named Barney no less (a spoof of the Don Knotts character on "The Andy Griffith Show") -- not to poke a dead body with a stick.

    Then there's the fishing scene -- scored to the "Dueling Banjos" theme from "Deliverance" -- where the catch Lester and Clay reel in is decidedly not that fresh. Although such moments are certainly dark and morbid, their brevity and the lack of other similarly constructed and accompanying scenes leave the film needing more to really work on this level.

    The filmmakers did manage, however, to deliver a nicely constructed scene between the no- nonsense FBI agent -- amusingly played by Janeane Garofalo -- and the serial killer whom we believe has zeroed in on her as his next target. The scene perfectly unfolds and then spins off into an unexpected turn as it comes to an end.

    The best scene, however, is a side note to the main plot. Holed up in a cheap motel with nothing better to do, Garofalo's character answers the door to get her pizza from the delivery boy who sees "Alien" playing on the TV and the quarter-fed motel bed hysterically jumping and bouncing across the room. As the young man gives her a knowing smile, Garofalo's smiling but sarcastic reaction is priceless, as is the fact that her muscle-bound partner is watching "Lassie" while all of this is occurring.

    In fact, the performances are pretty much what save the production. As the main character, Joaquin Phoenix ("To Die For," "Return to Paradise") furthers the proof that he's becoming the de facto standard for how to play a less than brilliant character who gets caught up in circumstances way over his head. Nobody does it better than Phoenix, and although his character doesn't elicit much sympathy from the viewer, it's still fun to watch him squirm under the growing predicaments he faces.

    While his character isn't greatly developed, Vince Vaughn ("Return to Paradise," "Swingers") is a hoot to watch in the "there's something evil under that charming grin" stranger role he inhabits. Perhaps cutting his teeth on the psychopathic role to ready himself for his appearance in the remake of "Psycho" (he'll be playing the Anthony Perkins part), Vaughn is fun to watch as he alternates between being a good ol' boy with a hyena-like laugh and a raging sociopath.

    Supporting performances, ranging from Garofalo ("The Truth About Cats and Dogs," "The Matchmaker") and her deadpan reactions and one-liners, to Scott Wilson's ("Shiloh," "G.I. Jane") take as the local yokel sheriff who's more in the know than first expected, are also quite good.

    Although music video veteran Dobkin and newcomer Healy show their feature film naivete with some structural, character-related and pacing problems that should have been fixed, the film's difficulties aren't major enough to prevent fans of the humorously macabre from somewhat enjoying the production. Stylishly shot and hip in a "retro" sort of fashion, and featuring some fun performances, the film is a decent, but not great entry in the black comedy genre. We give "Clay Pigeons" a 6 out of 10.

    Obviously, some viewers won't like the movie for taking a comedic -- albeit very black -- approach to murder and other such material. As such, several murders occur -- some seen, others implied -- with the weapons of choice being knives and guns. A suicide also occurs, and the results of it and the other violence is often bloody (other gore involves seeing dead bodies) and may be tense to some viewers.

    Profanity is extreme with more than 60 "f" words being uttered, while sexual content also rates as extreme with several encounters, nudity and movement being seen. Along with a lot of smoking, one character appears to smoke a joint earlier discovered at a crime scene, and some drinking also occurs. Since the film's "hip" quality may draw in some teens, you may want to take a closer look at the content should your kids, or anyone else in your home wish to see this film.

  • Clay and Earl drink beer while target shooting empty beer bottles.
  • Amanda pours herself a drink.
  • Clay drinks beer.
  • Clay and others drink in a bar.
  • Clay and Lester drink beer and have many empty bottles in front of them.
  • Lester drinks a beer.
  • Shelby smokes what appears to be a joint that her team earlier found in a bag as evidence at a murder scene.
  • Shelby has a drink in a bar and Lester joins her and has one as well (and others drink in the background as well).
  • After shooting himself twice, Earl's leg and chest are rather bloody and we see some blood running from his mouth.
  • We see a small bloody bullet hole in a woman's back after she's been shot.
  • Clay and Lester finds the partially decomposed body of a woman floating in a lake.
  • Clay throws up over the side of a boat (after finding the above), but we don't really hear or see much.
  • Lester purposefully slices his finger with a knife and we see just a tiny bit of blood.
  • We briefly see glimpses of a bloody, murdered woman lying in her bed, as well as a pool of blood on the floor and some bloody soap in the bathroom.
  • Shelby watches a video of the movie "Alien" that shows the scene where the alien bursts from the man's chest (and is quite bloody).
  • We see another dead woman's body from a distance.
  • The FBI agents find a bloody knife.
  • Clay's nose is a little bloody after being hit (which we don't see).
  • Obviously, some viewers won't like the movie for taking a comedic -- albeit very black -- approach to murder and other such material.
  • Clay has both for having an affair with his best friend's wife, while she also has both for that and for continuing to harass Clay after her husband's death.
  • Obviously the killer has both for being the serial killer and for getting Clay deeper in trouble.
  • Although no tense music is involved, Earl angrily points his gun at Clay after announcing that he knows he and his wife have been having an affair. He eventually shoots himself twice.
  • Clay, armed with a knife, goes back to bed with Amanda where he has her turn his back to him and we wait to see what he's going to do with the knife.
  • Shelby watches a video of the movie "Alien" that shows the scene where the alien bursts from the man's chest.
  • Clay, who's in prison, learns that the killer intends on killing another person to prove that Clay isn't the killer (since he's still in prison) and Clay then tries to do what he can to stop the killer.
  • The killer makes his move on Shelby who doesn't realize he's the killer.
  • The killer holds a knife to a young woman's throat, and Clay then aims and threatens to shoot a gun at the killer.
  • Shelby goes through the woods at night, her gun drawn, looking for the killer.
  • Handguns: Used by Clay and Earl for some target shooting, and then by Earl to shoot himself twice.
  • Handgun: Used by Amanda to shoot another woman dead.
  • Knife: Used by the killer to murder a woman and threaten another.
  • Handgun: Taken by Clay from Barny and later used to threaten the killer.
  • Phrases: "Bitch" (said several times about Amanda), "Piece of sh*t," "Piece of ass," "Quit d*cking around," "Shut up" and "Pissed off."
  • Clay covers up Earl's suicide and makes it look like an accident instead of reporting it to the police (to cover himself).
  • Lester loudly belches after drinking beer.
  • A man sticks a pencil (eraser first) up a sleeping man's nose.
  • None.
  • Despite the presence of several tense scenes, only a minor bit of suspenseful music occurs during the film.
  • None.
  • At least 62 "f" words (1 used with "mother"), 11 "s" words, 2 slang terms using female genitals ("p*ssy" and "c*nt"), 1 slang term using male genitals ("d*ck"), 18 hells, 6 damns, 5 S.O.B.'s, 2 asses and 22 uses of "G-damn," 5 uses of "Oh my God," 3 uses of "Jesus Christ," 2 uses of "Swear To God," and 1 use each of "Christ," "For Christ's sakes," "God," "Oh God" and "Jesus" as exclamations.
  • Earl calls Clay, "Mr. like to do it from behind" when commenting on his and his wife's affair.
  • We see part of Amanda's bare breasts as she walks along with her robe open in the front (and see her bikini-like underwear).
  • Clay returns home to find Amanda seductively waiting in his bed wearing a skimpy bra (cleavage) and bikini-like underwear. Asking why she's there, she responds, "We always do it on Wednesday" and then chimes in that they can use a video camera to tape themselves.
  • Amanda seductively approaches Clay in a pool hall and asks him, "You ever do it on a pool table?" as she shows more cleavage. She then says, "You're forgetting how good I can make you feel" and "It's been a long time since you did it with a real woman." She then reaches around and feels his crotch.
  • Clay and a woman have sex where we see the top of her bare butt as well as her bare breasts as she's on top of him. We also see movement and hear sexual sounds. Later, after this woman has been shot, we see her bare breasts as she lies dead on her back.
  • We see the partially decomposed and nude body of a woman floating face down in a lake.
  • Clay goes to Amanda' house, but finds Lester there (in his underwear), suggesting that they've had sex. Moments later, Lester tells her to lie on her stomach. As she does, he does something to her from behind (that can't quite be seen) that causes her great sexual pleasure (we see her pleasured reactions and hear some sexual sounds). He asks her if she likes it harder and if she likes it rough, and after she replies, "Give it to me," he stabs her in the back (we only see the raised knife).
  • Shelby watches a tape of the movie "Alien" that suddenly changes into a homemade porn tape of a sexual encounter (and we only hear the sounds then). Later, she shows this tape to Clay and it shows him and Amanda having sex (him between her legs with movement, bare breasts, and sexual sounds).
  • Both Clay and Amanda smoke quite often during the movie, while Lester smokes a few times (always breaking off the filter), and other characters, such as the sheriff, also smoke.
  • Amanda learns that her husband Earl is dead, but there's no grieving on her part.
  • The film's black humor approach to murder.
  • A character commits suicide after learning of his wife having an affair with his best friend.
  • Earl angrily points his gun at Clay after announcing that he knows he and his wife have been having an affair. He eventually shoots himself twice (suicide).
  • Clay then has to dispose of the body, so he puts Earl in his truck and sends both over a cliff where the truck eventually explodes.
  • Clay reels around and backhands Amanda after she won't stop coming on to him.
  • Amanda fires several shots at Clay and a woman having sex, finally hitting the woman in the back and killing her.
  • A body found in a lake is that of a murder victim stabbed to death.
  • The killer stabs a woman in the back (and we later hear that he repeatedly stabbed her).
  • Clay tries to attack Lester, but he then pins Clay to the ground.
  • The killer holds a knife to a young woman's throat, and Clay then aims and threatens to shoot a gun at the killer.
  • Clay's nose is a little bloody after being hit (which we don't see).

  • Reviewed September 10, 1998

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