All the art and craft of contemporary movies is reserved for the way characters light their cigarettes.
In close-up and slow motion, the gesture resembles a forest fire or an apocalypse; while, on the soundtrack, the Dolby engineers fill our ears with aural intimations of a vast explosion, a plane taking off, or the breaking of the sound barrier.
Fortunately, in Clay Pigeons this already cliché bit of business also has a handy plot function, as a means of tagging the troublesome Lester (Vince Vaughn).
This smooth talking cowboy has a way with cigarettes, but he's even better at manipulating the people he sidles up to in Mercer, Montana. Lester is the archetypal stranger in town: his past is a mystery, he is handsome and eager to please, and no one can ever be entirely sure whether he is an angel or a devil.
Next to this creepily suave bad boy, Clay (Joaquin Phoenix) is the local loser par excellence. He has hardly a malevolent bone in his body, but fate is handing him the raw end of every deal.
Caught between the manoeuvring of Lester and the demanding libido of his trashy girlfriend Amanda (Georgina Cates), Clay finds himself more and more deeply implicated in the fact that a bunch of corpses – obviously the handiwork of a serial killer – keep turning up in public view.
Clay Pigeons could easily have been a smarty-pants, derivative piece. The title is a lame pun, and the plot insists on its droll ironies and symmetries. Debut writer-director David Dobkin's occasionally flashy visual style recalls the empty signature of co-producer Ridley Scott (Thelma and Louise, 1991). The narrative sometimes seems little more than a parsing of notable plot moves from every stylish crime and mystery movie since Blood Simple (1984).
Similarities to Oliver Stone's U-Turn (1998) are duly noted. Both films explore the relentless black comedy of a dead-end milieu, with special emphasis on sexual betrayal. In particular, both use the peculiarly contemporary trick of taking old film noir conventions – femme fatale, malign destiny, crazies around every corner – in order to relocate them in wide open spaces and drench them in hard sunlight.
But the affinities stop there. Where U-Turn was a wildly excessive and histrionic effort, the chief pleasure of Clay Pigeons resides in its cool, steady control. The performances – which could so easily have become a series of bizarre circus turns – are well blended and always enjoyable. Especially welcome is Janeane Garofalo as Dale, an unflappable CIA agent who views the local customs with a withering eye.
Garofalo's mannerisms (as seen in The Larry Sanders Show and The MatchMaker ) already border on excessive familiarity, but Dobkin invents clever, intricate scenes for her – in particular, a boozy bar room encounter with Lester.
At such moments, Clay Pigeons resembles, in its modest way, a pleasant splicing of Welles' Touch of Evil (1958) with eccentric, screwball comedy. Dobkin's special touch would return in a trash comedy again starring Vaughn, Wedding Crashers (2005).
MORE Dobkin: Shanghai Knights
© Adrian Martin January 1999