Have adultery, murder and greed all moved to the sticks? Once firmly rooted in the big city, the seven deadly sins have taken on a distinct country-and-western twang in recent years, thanks to noirish, tough-minded scam-fests such as John Dahl's Red Rock West (1993) and The Last Seduction (1994), James Foley's After Dark, My Sweet (1990) and Dennis Hopper's neglected little gem The Hot Spot (1990), all of which take place, more or less, in rural outposts drenched in evil.
As for the Coen brothers and their 1996 junket to Fargo, no one down at the feed store will ever look at a wood chipper in quite the same way again. David Dobkin's deadly and devious Clay Pigeons might have the unlikeliest setting of all -- a hardscrabble Montana town called Mercer, at the foot of the sunlit, snow-capped Rockies. Everyone knows that people in burgs like this do sometimes sleep with other people's spouses, and that crimes of passion or profit do occur, but it's still a bit startling to find so much dark motive, nefarious intent and raw sex packed into a place with so many cowboy hats on display. Jesse James is dead, we thought.
Anyway, this well-made, expertly acted slice of neo-noir (filmed in Utah, actually) gets off the dime pretty fast. In scene one, a young desperado with a pistol in his hand confronts his best friend with the fact of an illicit affair involving his wayward wife, then promptly kills himself. But he stage-manages his suicide to look like murder.
This puts the adulterer, who turns out to be the "hero," Clay Bidwell (Joaquin Phoenix), in the first of many compromising situations. Rather than explain his old pal's death, he arranges a fiery truck crash to muddle the evidence. This is only the beginning of poor Clay's troubles. Before we're through, the local fishing hole yields up the waterlogged bodies of two murdered women, and a third gets chopped into little pieces in her steaming bedroom. Clay, an auto mechanic who apparently wants nothing more from life than a cold Bud, a game of pool and an occasional romp in the hay, seems to be intimately linked to each of the deaths. Need we remind everyone that's not good?
First-time screenwriter Matthew Healy soon introduces the ultimate plot-thickener in the person of a swaggering cowboy psychopath who calls himself Lester Long (Vince Vaughn). "Lester the Molester," the big guy jokes, then lets fly with his trademark guffaw. Little does Clay know that his garrulous new fishing buddy, decked out in a fringed shirt and a Stetson you could put a pickup truck in, is a lethal misogynist who's left a trail of corpses across the West. Molester, indeed.
Vaughn, who made his first big splash in last year's no-budget indie hit Swingers and who also appears (with Phoenix) as the conscience-stricken limo driver in the recent Return to Paradise, steals Clay Pigeons almost as easily as Lester sweet-talks local honeys at the honky-tonk. His Lester may not be the first grinning, back-slapping serial killer in movie history, or even the first to call himself "Big Daddy." But he might be the winningest: This demon's twisted brain waves are equaled only by his expansive charm -- he's part Ted Bundy, part John Wayne, you might say -- and it's a pleasure to watch rising star Vaughn let out the stops as we learn more and more about him. It's hard to imagine that he'll be any more engagingly dangerous in his next movie, Gus Van Sant's remake of Psycho.
Writer Healy and director Dobkin, whose previous credits include only music videos and TV spots, may have Vaughn to thank for giving the dark heart of their thriller its steady beat. But these new moviemakers clearly know a thing or two about character themselves -- and about spiking the proceedings with black humor. The standoff between Clay and Lester is Clay Pigeons' set piece, but the supporting players are a terrifically entertaining bunch, too. British star Georgina Cates ably inhabits the role of the none-too-grieving widow Amanda, a self-absorbed femme fatale of classic proportions who can blow smoke rings with the best of them and get under a man's skin in a Montana mini-second.
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Character actor Scott Wilson, still remembered for his chilling portrayal of the tall murderer in Richard Brooks's 1967 In Cold Blood (a pioneering example of small-town blood lust, come to think of it), is perfection as Mooney, the laconic local sheriff who sees more than he lets on. We've also got Janeane Garofalo (Reality Bites and Permanent Midnight) as the obligatory big-city FBI agent on the case. For comic relief, there's Mooney's groggy deputy (Vince Vieluf), who is named, ideally, Barney. Vast is the wingspan of The Andy Griffith Show.
These are all familiar characters, to be sure. But this entire cast is so skilled, and Healy often gives them such inventive things to say, that they never fail to fascinate. From the cocky killer con man at the top of the credits to the fleeting pizza delivery boy at the bottom (who savors the scent of dope in an FBI agent's scummy motel room), the human detail is impeccable. Discerning viewers should even be able to forgive the film's several little lapses in logic.
As for the presence of crime and sin in the hinterlands, so be it: These days that appears to mean more good movies for us.
Directed by David Dobkin. With Joaquin Phoenix, Vince Vaughn, Scott Wilson and Janeane Garofalo.