When Clay Bidwell (Joaquin Phoenix) joins Earl (Gregory Sporleder) for some target shooting just outside their small, scenic hometown of Mercer, Montana, he doesn't realize this day will be a turning point in his young, aimless life. With gun in hand, Earl announces that he's discovered Clay has been sleeping with his wife, Amanda (Georgina Cates).
In a scene that epitomizes how Clay Pigeons effectively juggles thriller and comedic elements, Clay pleads with him not to do anything he'll regret, while the despondent but methodical Earl carries out his plot to kill himself and put the blame on his (former) best friend.
How Clay deals with this crisis puts him on a slippery slope to a very specific type of damnation: that of the bystander-catalyst to murder. As bodies begin to pile up in this wicked black comedy, and Clay is at what he believes to be his lowest point, he's befriended by Lester Long (Vince Vaughn).
Lester seems like a buffoon: always dressed in too-loud western gear, with an absurd, machine-gun laugh and an overconfident air with women who react to his advances with disdain. But Lester's a fast and stalwart friend, even going so far as to sexually pursue the ferocious Amanda, who expects a reluctant Clay to remain her ever-faithful boy toy.
Screenwriter Matt Healy has created an intriguing take on male camaraderie and mutual dependency, then deftly tosses in a landmine: Everything that Clay has experienced as an observer, Lester knows firsthand. Turns out he really is a ladykiller.
Director David Dobkin establishes a wonderful sense of hyper-reality early on and maintains a hair-trigger tension throughout the film. By utilizing the rugged, beautiful mountain landscape and an excellent soundtrack (original music from John Lurie and well-chosen country nuggets), Dobkin creates a milieu that's both eerily familiar and edgy.
By the time Janeane Garofalo enters the fray as a jaded FBI agent, Lester has taken hold of not just Clay's future, but of the collective imagination. Clay Pigeons unleashes a magnificent monster in Lester Long: the rampaging id as a midnight-rhinestone cowboy with a goofy grin.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.