Published September 1, 1998
Clay Pigeons, directed by David Dobkin and written by Matt Healy purports to take place in Montana, though in fact it takes place in Movieland, or that province of it which has been colonized by Quentin Tarantino and all the Taranteenies. You know you are in this part of the world when everyone you meet is weird and quirky but in a familiar, movieish kind of way. The first person we meet is a crazy, gun-toting cowboy called Earl (Gregory Sporleder) who confronts his best friend, Clay (Joaquin Phoenix), with his adultery with his, Earl’s, wife while they are taking target practice with their handguns and Clay has temporarily set down his. An interesting situation, you might think. But Earl, being the weird and quirky Movieland type, shoots himself instead of Clay in the hope that Clay will be blamed for his death and sent to prison. That’s showing him.
But Earl is a positive Babbitt of middle-class conformity compared to the rest of the people in town. Or at least the ones we meet. His prematurely merry widow, for instance, played by Georgina Cates, is one of Movieland’s sultry sex-pot bitches who flaunts her adulteries and thinks nothing of blowing away a rival in love, expecting, like her late husband, Clay to get the blame for it. Soon we are to meet a friendly serial-killer (guess who he plans to blame for his murders), a sheriff who builds balsa wood models of sailing ships, his stupid deputy called Barney, a female FBI agent who smokes confiscated marijuana and watches a video of Alien because it is “empowering,” another FBI agent, a black man who watches “Lassie” on TV and other Movieland types whom you might not find after combing the whole state of Montana but here are concentrated in one town.
In the midst of all this weirdness, Clay the Pigeon is the one normal (well, sort of normal) guy, which makes him something of a Candide—the innocent hero whom all the other characters reveal themselves by practising their wiles upon. They, of course, don’t know that they are weird denizens of Movieland. They think that normal Clay, our representative in their cockeyed republic, is the weird one. “Promise me you’ll stop finding dead people,” says the model-building sheriff (Scott Wilson). All of Clay’s relationships become life-threatening, so he should not be surprised that his new fishing buddy, another cowboy called Lester (Vince Vaughn), turns out to be a serial killer with a menacingly sentimental sense of gratitude to him for his friendship. “Used to be friends would stick their necks out for each other,” he says after Lester doesn’t take a chance to tell the sheriff about him; “not so much anymore.” But then Lester plants one of his murder weapons in Clay’s house, where it is found by the pot-smoking FBI agent (Janeane Garofalo).
Crazy Lester (not his real name) explains his modus operandi to Clay. There are lots of lonely people in the world who can go missing and no one notices. No one cares. Not so many, one wants to add, as there are in Movieland where social atomization is total and no one seems to have any family or real friends. No wonder Lester thinks “there are some people out there that need killin’”—mostly women, of course, whom he stabs to death while he is engaged in sex with them. Stripped of all normal social attributes as wives, mothers or daughters, women are more easily represented as mere sexual objects. When Clay does give up his friend to the sheriff and the FBI, he warns them that Lester “has a real dim view of women.”
“Well hell,” says the pot-smoking lady FBI agent, “who doesn’t around here.”
Like the film, she thinks she’s talking about Montana, but she’s really talking about Movieland.