Ah, the early days of Joaquin Phoenix; back when he first changed his name from Leaf Phoenix; though maybe he could have gone with a better name than Clay Pigeons. Hey, considering how much his family seemed to love birds and the elements, that could be bought as his name, but thank goodness he went back to his cool, real name, unless Clay Pigeons actually is his real name. Maybe he changed it to Joaquin Phoenix before his real name got too far out, either because he didn't want a lame name if he was gonna become a successful actor, or because he felt oppressed by the Clay name, became Cassius X Pigeons, and subsequently adopted his new cool name that definately sounds better in boxing. ...Muhammad Ali jokes, anyone? Sorry people, but it's really hard to make a joke about a comedy, and with this film being about some wacky, Vince Vaughn-played redneck framing his buddy... for several horrible murders, you can definately expect a wild fun time. Actually, in all fairness, this really was pretty funny, though it's still not quite as laughable as that certain other 1998 serial killer movie that Vince Vaughn was in. Okay, I haven't seen Gus Van Sant's "Psycho", but if it is as much of a mess as everyone says, then I'm going to give Vince Vaughn the benefit of the doubt and say that the reason why that movie slipped up so bad was because they thought it was a good idea to get the guy that did "Good Will Hunting", or at least that's what I though until I saw enough bits and pieces of "The Cell" at one point to tell you that Vince Vaughn is certainly no terribly good actor, let alone horror movie actor, unless he's playing a messed up guy in a dark comedy, because in that department, he knows how to deliver, though not quite thoroughly enough for us to completely laugh away all of the problems in the film.
This film marks David Dobkin's first attempt at feature film directing, and while he does do a mostly good job at it, and certainly a better job than you'd expect him to do with a film of this type, the storytelling makes that fact fairly obvious. The storytelling is on, what I call, "Freeflow Storytelling", in that it doesn't break in resonance or slow down, and while this film does have some depth of intrigue, it needs a break every now and again. Now, you still get your recommended dose of exposition, yet the storytelling feels like it's in a hurry, leaving many an event to fall into place too conveniently to feel organic, and leaving some development between tonal shifts to go glossed over, leaving the film to feel tonally inconsistent from time to time. The film doesn't slow down, but neither is it built to have such freeflow in tone, and that's a flaw that we've seen in plenty films of this type, and more often than not, the final product comes out as, not necessarily unrewarding, but without enough organic pow in the resonance to really leave any really deep impression, leaving the final product to come off as barely, if at all terribly memorable. However, note that I said that Dobkin did a better job of directing this than you'd expect him to with a film like this, because, where the film could have fallen flat and into that aforecited pile of enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable small-time dark comedies, it comes out to be one of your better ones. Sure, it's no knockout, being plagued by the problems mentioned, as well as its being, to certain degree, a little too tonally similar to other films of its type, and yet, it transcends expectations, nevertheless, through Dobkin's fine taste in wit and other aspects that showed some high potential in him. If nothing else, the boy knows style more than you'd expect him to.
Now, as much as I've been going on and on about how this film does the unexpected, I really didn't expect it to look this good, which isn't to say that it looks like something Terrence Malick would come up with, though it is to say that the film has a lot of visual pop and crisp with a handsome glow to it that both catches your eye, and gives this film charm, as well as some artistic depth to make the darker stuff feel more organic. Sure, as I said, Dobkin's build-up to the darker aspects stand to be comfortable, but when it comes down to fully shifting the tone, while it is somewhat jarring, on the whole, it's a fairly organic twist, partially because, if there is any jar, most of it is covered up by the fact Dobkin's really understands tone. Sure, the versatility in that tone is decidedly imperfect, as far as organic, dynamic flow is concerned, but whether it be through his manipulation of the sharp soundtrack and editing, or simply a firm grip on atmosphere, Dobkin nails the darker aspects with oomph and some tension to produce consistent intrigue, and the more humorous aspect with wit and some pretty darn effective jokes to produce consistent charm, really bringing Matt Healy's sharp screenply to life, and with plenty of entertainment value. Still, responsibility for the execution of a good screenplay lays, not only with the director, but the performers that have to carry the product, and with a comedy talent like Vince Vaughn and an all-around acting talent like Joaquin Phoenix calling the shots, you can expect some deliverance in the performance department. Sure, just about everyone in the film is good and memorable, but our definate standouts remain the leads, such as Vince Vaughn, who is not one to be subtle, nor, as I stated earlier, a terribly good actor, but he's shockingly, not good, but excellent in this film, not just with that shockingly sharp redneck accent, but also with that kind of thorough charm that can be found within the Lester Long character, or at least until his darker side surfaces, at which point, Vince Vaughn, against all extents and purposes, believe it or not, absolutely nails that sociopathic disturbance with, yes, [u][b]subtlety, powerful grace and compelling tension in his presence[/b][/u] (Seriously, Vince Vaughn?), which isn't to say that he stands a chance of doing even close to as good of a job in his certain other serial killer role of 1998, because, come on, it's still "Vince Vaughn" as "Norman Bates", but it is to say that he really fires on more cylinders than you would ever have expected him to as this kind of charming maniac of an antagonist. As for Joaquin Phoenix, well, come on, it's Joaquin Phoenix, so of course he's awesome, really delivering on a kind of cool charm that nails his Clay Bidwell character's presence as trustworthy sharp-shooter, as well as a laid-back down-to-earth. However, being that he's such a powerful actor, it's the more dramatic aspects in which Phoenix really shines, as the Clay Bidwell character faces much tragedy and danger, and with it, subtle panic, deep anguish and an overall sense of emotional claustrophobia, all aspects that Phoenix nails effortlessly, never really given enough material to really blow you away, but whether it through a quietly tense moment of him simply gazing off, pondering the situation at hand, or simply giving off a graceful presence, Phoenix is as much a compelling lead as he is a charming one.
In conclusion, the fluid-to-a-fault storytelling moves a little too quickly for certain pieces of tonal transition and build-up to fall into place very organically, and yet, then-first-time director David Dobkin carries his film past most of its missteps by not only really hitting stylistically, but nailing the charm, as well as the tension within Matt Healy's clever, layered and all around sharp screenplay, which is also really powered by fine performances by all involved, especially our leads, Vince Vaughn and Joaquin Phoenix, both of whom deliver on both electric charisma, as well as graceful depth, when the time comes, making them one of the key factors in making "Clay Pigeons" a thoroughly entertaining and often chilling dark comedy that also serves as quite the testament to the talent and potential of the talents both on and off of the screen.
3/5 - Good