Sep 28, 2023
Clay Pigeons is a cult-classic dark comedy about small-town appearances, serial killers, and sexual betrayal that is just as funny as it is grim.
Rating: 4 out of 5 dead could-be rockstars
Welcome to Feast Upon This, a new column by yours truly where I’ll be sharing with you new and old titles worth feasting upon and telling you all about why you should watch them. First up is the 1998 independent gem Clay Pigeons, a relentlessly dark but funny small-town crime drama about a simple guy who keeps finding himself in the worst possible situations—usually involving dead bodies—and perhaps the nicest serial killer on the planet.
Starring Joaquin Phoenix (Joker), Vince Vaughn (Old School), and Janeane Garofalo (Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later), Clay Pigeons has a strange, meandering plot that starts off funny but turns dark pretty fast as it twists and turns, leaving you wondering where the hell it’s gonna lead. It definitely treads the fine line between comedy and laid-back seriousness.
Clay Pigeons was developed under filmmakers Ridley and Tony Scott’s company, Scott Free Productions, and is directed by David Dobkin (Shanghai Knights and Wedding Crashers). It’s also the second successful on-screen collaboration between Vaughn and Phoenix, who appeared together in Return to Paradise, which is also a great movie upon which you should feast. It released the same year and centers on two friends (Vaughn and Phoenix) who must choose whether to help a third friend who was arrested in Malaysia for drug possession. Back to Clay Pigeons, though.
Set in the small town of Mercer, Montana, where everybody knows your name and is all up in your business, Clay Pigeons is one of those macabre comedies where the characters are quirky, not much is taken too seriously, the deputy sheriff is named—in homage to The Andy Griffith Show—Barney, and dead bodies continually surface around one particularly innocent man, making him look completely guilty.
Clay Bidwell (Phoenix) is an affable, weak-willed, easy-going gas station attendant who, in the opening scene, finds himself up Shit Creek without a paddle while out target shooting with his best friend, Earl (Gregory Sporleder, of Black Hawk Down). With gun in hand, Earl announces he knows Clay has been sleeping with his wife, Amanda (Georgina Cates, of Sinner). Then, in an entertaining scene epitomizing how effectively Clay Pigeons juggles dark thriller and comedic elements, Clay begs Earl not to do anything he’ll regret right as a disheartened but methodical Earl carries out his plot to off himself and make it look like Clay killed him.
In a panic, Clay goes to Amanda for help, but she tells him he’s on his own and leaves him to his own devices to dispose of the body. See, Clay is the kind of character who wouldn’t hurt a fly. Hell, he wouldn’t even swat at one, so when he stages a drunken car wreck to make Earl’s death look like a suicide, he’s batshit squirmy and completely out of his element. But ultimately Clay makes it work and even gets away with it, thanks to the gullible (and borderline narcoleptic) Deputy Sheriff Barney, who has known Clay long enough to know he would never, ever do anything wicked; he swallows every drop of bullshit Clay feeds him with ease.
After Earl’s funeral, Clay finds an unapologetic, half-naked Amanda at his house in his bed, where she pressures him to continue with their affair. Overwhelmed with guilt, Clay resists her advances and heads to the bar, where she follows and invasively pressures Clay, getting all up in his personal space, ignoring his requests to leave him alone. When she amps up her attempts by getting physical, he slaps her and catches the attention of a peculiar cowboy hat-wearing bar patron, who moves in closer to befriend Clay while he’s at his lowest.
Lester Long (Vaughn) is an obnoxiously dressed, super suave, but unnervingly creepy drifter who rolls into town the day of Earl’s funeral and forces his way into Clay’s life after seeing (and enjoying) his act of violence against a woman. An always smiling, over-confident fast talker, Long dresses in tacky, WAY-TOO-LOUD western wear and accentuates it with a high-pitched, machine-gun laugh—the kind that creeps you out and compels you to get as far away from him as you can.
But he’s more than just a drifter: He’s an under-the-radar serial killer making his way through the state of Montana. This silver-tongued cowboy has a way with the ladies, a way with cigarettes, and he’s top notch at manipulating anyone he cozies up to. Lester—excuse me, “Lester the, uh, Mo-lester” as he likes to introduce himself, is the archetypal stranger with a mysterious past, handsome good looks, and such a charming manner that you can’t really be entirely sure if he’s an angel or the devil. All you know is that something about him is just … off.
Next to Long, Clay is the local loser par excellence who finds himself embroiled in a life of panic, anxiety, and suspicion as fate continues to throw him the raw end of the deal at every turn. Stuck between a rock and a hard place (i.e., Lester’s maneuvering and Amanda’s slutty libido), Clay finds himself implicated in the fact that a bunch of corpses—obviously the work of a serial killer—keep turning up around him, right in the public’s view.
After Earl’s death, a distraught Clay bones a waitress named Gloria, which pisses off a vengeful Amanda, who winds up killing Gloria. Always the sucker, Clay agrees the dispose of the body once again and dumps it in a local lake. Only, he forgets to weigh it down, so you know this one’s coming back to surface, and you can bet it will be at the most inopportune time. The next day, Lester baits Clay into going fishing at the same lake, and in a most hysterical scene, Gloria’s dead body floats to the surface and horrifies Clay. In a panic, he tries pushing the body away from the boat with an oar before Lester notices but doesn’t succeed. That moment right there is one of the reasons you should watch Clay Pigeons.
As Lester spots and points at the body, he stands and, with charming innocence, yells, “Well f**k me! Man overboard! Man overboard!"
"Oh my God, what is that?" Clay asks.
"Alarm! That’s a person, Clay! That’s a dead person!” Lester answers.
"Well, I can see that .... wh--what do we do?" Clay wonders.
"I don't know, man. It's a new situation for me," Lester says as he reaches for the leg of the body. "It's okay, I've got her," he continues as Clay leans over the side of the boat to vomit.
"Aw man, it just gets uglier and uglier! I love the open water, man!" Lester exclaims.
“Well, I don’t think anybody would want us touching her, you know?” a freaked-out Clay says.
“Her? Hell, I’m not even sure that damn thing’s a woman!” Lester quips.
“Well of course it’s a woman. It’s got long hair,” Clay responds.
“Well, it could be a rockstar, Clay. We don’t know what the f**k it is,” Lester asserts.
Having no choice, Clay confesses his secret to his new pal Lester, which solidifies for Lester that the two are now “fishin’ buddies” for life. Just for your viewing pleasure, here’s a little snippet of that scene, but you should really watch it in its entirety for the full effect.
Clay further paints himself into a corner when he goes to Sheriff Mooney (Scott Wilson, of Black Mirror) to report the body and keeps Lester’s name out of the deets. But time always tells the truth, and when Amanda turns up dead after boning Lester, Clay begins to put two and two together and realizes Lester is the killer. When the FBI show up, Sheriff Mooney is not happy they’re all up in his jurisdiction, but he allows the help and knows he needs it after continually catching Deputy Barney (Vince Vieluf, of Love, Inc.) napping on the job and being super careless with evidence due to his lack of common sense. Now Clay really looks like the prime suspect, especially once Agent Shelby (Garofalo) questions him in jail.
“You’re dating one victim, you’re having an affair with another, and you actually found the third. Kind of a coincidence, wouldn’t you say?” Shelby taunts Clay.
Garofalo and her mannerisms, which border on excessive familiarity with Fargo’s police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand), make Agent Shelby one of the best parts of Clay Pigeons and yet another reason why you should see this movie. She’s highly intelligent, extremely direct, and plays the sarcastic “wise guy”—the kind of wise guy who sniffs out other wise guys a mile away. It’s no surprise, then, that after meeting Lester Long, she suspects he's probably the killer. Director David Dobkin does a fantastic job of creating clever, intricate scenes for Garofalo to have fun with—in particular, that bar room encounter with Lester.
As Clay sits in a cell under FBI suspicion of being a serial killer, Lester goes to visit him and tell him he has a plan to help prove Clay’s innocence: He’ll just kill another person to prove Clay isn’t the one committing these crimes. Lester’s malevolence really bleeds out here in the way he toys with Clay, who does not like this plan at all. In an effort to face Lester and stop the murder, Clay breaks out of jail by duping the one Agent Shelby refers to as “a boob,” Deputy Barney. What plays out after that is left completely up to your viewing pleasure.
What I love about Clay Pigeons are the characters. Screenwriter Matthew Healy really dove deep into creating Clay, Lester, Barney, and Agent Shelby, and it shows in how well written they are. Both Clay and Lester pretend to be dumber than they really are, with Phoenix taking on the more subdued role of innocent man in trouble while Vaughn, in a far more distinctive turn than his take on Norman Bates, is a diabolical serial killer and charming misogynist who might sound and appear creepy but who is genuinely wrapped up in his friendship with Clay, whom he pins to be his fall guy. Their relationship serves as an intriguing take on male camaraderie and mutual dependency that turns into an exploding landmine once Clay discovers the truth.
Clay Pigeons features some enjoyable early stellar performances from Phoenix, Vaughn, and Garofalo, who each delightfully relish their individual roles, which further allows us to relish every little thing about their characters and acting methods. Clay Pigeons’ quirky little narrative makes plenty of room for its somewhat-clunky plot to unravel and unwind on you in its own time, and it’s stocked full of some high-quality verbal zingers—yet another reason to watch this film. Sheriff Mooney also lays down some solid work, understanding that his character is, unlike the others, not at all there to be funny but instead is there to ground everyone in reality.
Overall, Clay Pigeons is a pleasant amalgamation of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958) with classic, eccentric, screwball comedy topped off with a fun soundtrack to enhance the laid-back but sinister mood. Riding the tail end of the neo-noir boom of the 90s, Clay Pigeons was generally regarded as derivative of Quentin Tarantino and Coen Bros. films with their idiosyncratic characters enmeshed in a neo-noirish story bookended by jarring violence and clever levity. If you’re at all a Joaquin Phoenix, Vince Vaughn, or Janeane Garofalo fan, this is one flick you’re gonna want to indulge in and add to your queue or collection.
Clay Pigeons is available to buy or rent on Prime Video, Apple TV, Vudu, Redbox, and Roku.
Keeley Brooks is big ole movies, television, and streaming nerd with a voracious appetite for entertainment consumption and an uncontrollable urge to write about everything she watches, even if it sucks.