Joaquin Phoenix, Vince Vaughn and Janeane Garafalo are Doing the Pigeon in Misguided Dark Comedy.
DIRECTED BY DAVID DOBKIN/1998
BLU-RAY STREET DATE: JULY 27, 2021/KL STUDIO CLASSICS
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…”
The bereaved widow, obviously not so bereaved, has tossed a handful of dirt onto her dead husband’s metal casket. Clearly there was a big rock hiding in it. That’s at the close of a burial service in 1998’s supposed dark comedy, Clay Pigeons. The awkward hollow impact is the only moment in the whole movie that drew a chuckle from me.
If deranged small town yokelism mixed with cold-blooded murder tickles your funny bone, then Clay Pigeons may be for you. If the film’s leading man, a young Joaquin Phoenix, was told that this is a comedy, that info did not sink in. (Then again, maybe it did… This is Joaquin Phoenix, after all). But in his defense, it is rather hard to tell. Just because something is labelled a dark-as-pitch comedy doesn’t mean that it can coast on cruel-ass death-dealing. Not even when the resident psychopath is then-trendy Vince Vaughn in a seventeen-gallon hat and fist-sized belt buckle.
Oh, the twists; oh, the post-Pulp Fiction warped violence of it all. Vaughn, the film’s central stabby guy, isn’t even introduced until two deaths into the thing. Phoenix plays Clay, a going-nowhere, sweltering-without-a-cause young man who’s been carrying on a secret affair with his buddy’s wife (Georgina Cates). She’s the bereaved widow who tossed the rock onto her dead husband’s coffin. A permanent perverse sneer and her spaghetti strap always fallen off her shoulder just about sums her up. Everyone talks like a Dukes of Hazard day player. Director David Dobkin (The Wedding Crashers) sends up his characters and then gleefully shoots them down. Like, you know… clay pigeons.
The exception is the late, great Scott Wilson, who by default is the sympathetic center of Clay Pigeons. He plays the local sheriff who has to investigate all of the brutal murders but is ineffectual at best. The gory, mangled repulsion of it all seems to have a deep internal impact on him. Few words and soulful gazes are his main characteristics. This lawman as played by Wilson would not be out of place on Twin Peaks (another blatantly obvious but failing influence on the entire movie). Wilson, though, is an oasis in this desert.
And oh what the heck, let’s give it up for Janeane Garafalo, too. Garafalo, with her name and face on the cover, might have you asking through the first half, “Where the heck is Janeane Garafalo??” Just be patient; She Who Can Timestamp Anything “1990s” By Her Very Presence shows up around the midpoint. Garafalo is rather great as the transferred-in FBI agent and smartest person in any given room. (This is Janeane Garafalo, after all).
New to Blu-ray from the comprehensive folks at Kino Lorber as part of their “Studio Classics” line (don’t get the wrong idea), it must be said that Clay Pigeons looks quite good on Blu-ray. Similar in setting and debauchery to Dennis Hopper’s 1990 neo-noir The Hot Spot (which the label also recently released on Blu-ray), the heat, dust, and blue skies are particularly potent via these HD transfers. The film’s retro rockabilly soundtrack sounds appropriately jukebox-y. It just wouldn’t be a Tarantino rip-off without a flurry of ironic “Americana” needle-drops. Director Dobkin is on hand for an all-new audio commentary. He thanks Kino for finally giving him the chance to record a commentary for this film, and then proceeds to leave a bunch of silent gaps in-between comments.
Let’s not beat around the bush any longer. Clay Pigeons stinks. It’s built upon punching-down cynicism and veiled classist distrust of rural folks, all of whom are weird and unsettling in this movie. In the inescapable Tarantino-ness of the mid-to-late ‘90s, this film’s sort of out-of-the-ordinary jaded tonal dynamics were considered a creative virtue in and of themselves. Plenty of post-Pulp Fiction hard-Rs utterly missed the point of why that film was actually a breath of relatively fresh air at the time. Clay Pigeons perches high on that list. For anyone fan enough to desire this unfunny movie on Blu-ray, here it is. For everyone else, this release might make a fine substitution target for its namesake. It’s all crumbled and lands with a thud.