Scattered thoughts on Clay Pigeons (1998)

Directed by David Dobkin

Screen Shot 2020-05-06 at 9.12.24 PM

Clay Pigeons plays out like a noir until the protagonist is let off the hook and forced to do battle with an unbelievable villain.

Clay (Joaquin Phoenix) is put in an unfortunate position when his best friend, having discovered that Clay and his wife were conducting an affair, kills himself and stages it to look like Clay’s fault.   So Clay makes the suicide look like a drunk driving accident, and the local chief of police takes it at face value.

From there the best friend’s wife grows jealous when Clay turns his affections to another woman, and so she… kills that other woman.  When she threatens to turn Clay in to the police for the apparent murder of her husband, Clay feels pressured to hide this second murder and keep his mouth shut for his own safety.

At this point I think you have a pretty entertaining, even if delirious, black comedy.  You can predict that the police will begin to smell something amiss and circle in on Clay, for whom the evidence doesn’t look good.  Except the film introduces yet another antagonist, a fast-talking, perhaps charismatic cowboy named Lester (Vince Vaughn).

In comparing the timid Clay and the boisterous Lester, particularly as they develop a fast friendship, there seems to be a path towards showing the corrosion of Clay’s soul.  Until this point the universe has begun to rain on him, with several wild and unpredictably sinister characters who insist on digging his grave.

The story would then seem to be about how he handles this.  Does he play by the rules or turn his soul black to get even or just to get away?  In any case his character has agency, and depending on which path he chooses, he may suffer as a good man or succeed as a polluted one.

Specifically I began to wonder if Clay, after one rather engaging scene on the lake with Lester, would sense the chance to pin the crimes on his new friend, should the heat turn up.  And I wanted to know more about that story, what Clay would choose and how it would affect him.

But instead Lester takes control, and Clay becomes a witness to something far greater, but in that sizable ‘greatness’ there are no shades of gray, just a clear-cut hero and clear-cut villain.

Clay Pigeons isn’t a noir aesthetically speaking, but the first half of the film certainly has the beating heart of the genre.  Were the film to go down that route, then it would explore the corruption of Clay’s soul.  Instead the second half of the film insists upon his goodness, not by his choice of action but rather in simple contrast with true evil.

In the end it doesn’t feel like Clay has actually done anything.  He has just born witness to a series of comical crimes, coincidences and black-hearted people.  The most he does, oddly, is in the first twenty minutes of the film.  From there he becomes a tertiary character in someone else’s story.

But that first half of the film is pretty good.

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