Endless Montana sky. Rolling hills. Sunburst over patchy brown and green land. Empty beer bottles strung up in tiny nooses hanging off tree branches. Target practice, beat up pick-up trucks, pistol edification, accusations and suicide. Cowboys, dive bars, truckers, and a serial killer named Lester Long (Vince Vaughn). A downbeat mechanic named Clay (Joaquin Phoenix). The sad-eyed Sheriff Mooney (Scott Wilson), whose heart gets drop-kicked and wells up at every crime scene, as if he's seeing a dead body for the first time. Pot-smoking, sarcastic FBI agent Shelby (Janeane Garofalo) and her stolid partner, Reynard (Phil Morris). Small-town theaters and diner waitresses, including the virgin (Monica Moench) and the vixen (Nikki Arlyn).
Clay's been fucking around with Amanda (Georgina Cates), who likes to get screwed on videotape. Amanda's husband, Earl (Gregory Sporleder), can't cope with a cheating wife and offs himself with Clay's gun, hoping the cops pin the murder. Clay and Amanda swell their veins in figuring that it's best Earl's death look like an accident, even though their affair is pretty much history by now. So, Clay does it up best he can, but it's not enough for Amanda. Spurned by Clay, she decides to put a bullet in his new girl (Arlyn), knowing he won't go to the cops. Clay's got another body to deal with and Amanda's got their darkest secrets holed up in her ass, waiting to spill if he gets out of line.
Enter Lester Long, the new stranger in town, quickly making friends with Clay and next up at bat with Amanda, who can't keep her legs shut. Lester's a fast-talking cowboy, complete with a ten-gallon hat and snap-button rodeo shirts, like he was drawn out of a little boy's brain. Of course, Lester is a killer, carving up chicks across multiple counties, and target number one for Shelby and Reynard, who roll into town after Lester plunges a kitchen knife into Amanda's back, and about fifty other places on her body. Clay can't make sense of it and becomes the new suspect. His hands are in three bodies and he needs to clear his name, pointing the finger at Lester. We learn that Lester's not his real name and he works at some trucking depot out of town, which means the FBI can't find him. The next best thing is to throw Clay in jail.
Lester knows a thing or two about what Clay did with Earl and the waitress, and offers a truce for sealed lips. And to show that he's serious and test Clay's resolve, Lester plans to kill the vestigial Kimberly (Moench). With their apparent man behind bars, Shelby hits Doc Holiday's for a boozy night, sharing a moment with Lester at the bar, neither knowing the other until Shelby spots the trademark torn cigarette butt left by Lester. Clay escapes and catches up with Lester at the lake, striking right before he does Kimberly with a sick-looking, straight-up Rambo-like bowie knife. Shelby shows up and Clay lets Lester go until the finale, where he sets Lester up to be caught, using an undercover Mooney. The end.
That's about all the good stuff in Clay Pigeons, from first-time director David Dobkin and screenwriter Matthew L. Healy, produced by Ridley and Tony Scott. And yeah, there's some cool horror-like lighting in the lake scene and John Lurie delivers another fuck-the-hole score.
There's bad stuff, too. Like the contrived ending and ill-conceived and unnecessary slow-motion shots, close-ups and flashbacks, especially of the cigarette butt when Shelby realizes she's just met the killer. We already know Lester's the guy. We knew it like an hour ago. And we already knew the cigarette butt means something when Reynard held it up at Amanda's place and Shelby gave him a nod. This isn't a thriller. It's not a whodunit. We don't need forced clues and epiphanies and ah-ah moments. It's a crime flick. It's black comedy. It's offbeat and fun. It's a little Fargo (1996) and Ruthless People (1986) (but nowhere near as good), and a little Curdled (1996) (but probably better). The buck stops with Dobkin, even if Healy wrote this weak shit into the script. The director should know better. It could be the insulting Hollywood hand-hold, thinking that the audience is a bunch of dumb fucks who can't connect the dots or make logical inferences. That may be true for the masses that flock to Fast and the Furious or Transformers (or any Michael Bay shit for that matter), driven solely by plot and action sequences. But Clay Pigeons presents a much better concept. This is the smarter side of film where characters push the story.
Then there are some great things. Namely, the cast. They fill the characters' shoes like custom-fit jobs. Find me an actor who can do beaten and bruised and uncomfortable in his own skin like Phoenix. It's that same hurting gait he showed in The Master (2012). He tempers anger and anguish when he could just surrender to being irascible. And tell me who plays the savvy smart-ass better than Garofalo. Short in stature, big in delivery, her hands making fun of her brain because they can't keep up. Even Morris, with about three lines of dialogue, hits the spot. He was aces as Martian Manhunter in Smallville (2006-2010) and you can expect the same here. And Vaughn, whom I've never considered a gifted actor, gets by nicely in this early role, searching for the confidence to pull off sinister and serious while playing a fool. (Maybe he's still searching.)
The absolute best are Wilson and Cates, portraying the spectral person in very different ways. Wilson plays the old lawman, lasting this long because nothing ever happens. When the outside ugly intrudes and knocks over his dormant resistance to police work, he masks toughness with an emotional slip. He isn't about to give up because some blood stains the town, but he wishes he could bleach the stains just this once, never having to wash them away again. His stances are stock Western. His chin to the floor and measured notes tell us that Sheriff Mooney is no stranger to strange, but a long time has passed and he just needs a minute to steady his shaky knees. Wilson's the type Robert Altman used to work with. Unnerved and subdued. No wonder he's been at this acting thing over forty years.
Clay Pigeons is a classy idea, notched by top-shelf performances, but dragged down by mediocre execution.