That overemployed staple of '90s U.S. cinema, the serial killer, is rampaging once again in "Clay Pigeons." This sometimes diverting and well-cast effort from feature debutants director David Dobkin and scenarist Matt Healy is slanted as a black comedy, but fails to secure the sufficiently outre tone (let alone any real suspense) needed to make it more than a middling retread.

That overemployed staple of ’90s U.S. cinema, the serial killer, is rampaging once again in “Clay Pigeons.” This sometimes diverting and well-cast effort from feature debutants director David Dobkin and scenarist Matt Healy is slanted as a black comedy, but fails to secure the sufficiently outre tone (let alone any real suspense) needed to make it more than a middling retread. Falling between mainstream and arthouse appeal, the Gramercy release looks toward modest theatrical biz. Ancillary prospects may improve, given higher-profile projects on the slate for rising stars Vince Vaughn and Joaquin Phoenix.

The intended grotesque/deadpan tone is advanced in the opening setpiece, which has small-town Montana gas station attendant Clay (Phoenix) shooting bottles in a remote field with best friend Earl (Gregory Sporleder). Latter pulls a big surprise when he turns the gun on Clay, whom he’s discovered has been sleeping with Earl’s wife. Homicidal urges turn to suicidal ones, however, leaving Clay with a dead body — and makes him look like the slayer.

He gets no help from that slatternly spouse, Amanda (Georgina Cates, doing a stock trashy vixen turn); she’d rather see him go to prison than let town gossips know about their affair, so Clay is stuck faking a car accident for the corpse.

He finds solace in the arms of a local waitress (Nikki Arlyn). But Amanda — as fiercely jealous as she is disloyal — interrupts this interlude by shooting the poor girl dead. Once again, Clay must hide a body that appearances suggest he killed.

Appalled, he goes drinking at the local saloon. His funk is lifted somewhat by alleged passing-through trucker Lester (Vaughn, looking very “Young Country” — like Garth Brooks minus 80 pounds), who’s full of an antic, just slightly suspect camaraderie. The two bond over pool games and brewskis.

Later, they go fishing. No fish are caught, but bad luck is: A stiff (presumably that of Clay’s waitress friend) floats to the lake surface. Earl, however, reacts with odd amusement, insisting they yank the corpse ashore before calling authorities, then asking Clay to tell cops he’d found it alone.

Not long after, sluttish Amanda — already seen in horny Lester’s company — is found at home with 40 stab wounds. At this point, any doubts Clay had about his new “friend” are well confirmed. He finally comes clean with the local sheriff (Scott Wilson, who played a heartland serial slayer three decades ago in “In Cold Blood”), as well as newly arrived FBI agents Shelby (Janeane Garofalo) and Reynard (Phil Morris).

But Lester — who may have committed up to 12 such murders — is nowhere to be found, and Clay’s inno-cence is doubted. He breaks out of jail in hopes of nabbing the fiend before latter kills again.

As elsewhere, plot logistics in the coda don’t tally up. Biggest credibility gap throughout Healy’s screenplay is that it posits Clay as a basically honest, goodhearted reg’lar guy, but has him making stupid or morally daft decisions for improbable reasons from start to finish.

Vaughn (soon to be seen as Norman Bates in the new “Psycho” from Gus Van Sant, who piloted Phoenix’s breakout perf in “To Die For”) manages to balance hyena-laughing good-ol’-boyness with a slowly revealed major creepiness. But the role’s essentially a stock device.

Phoenix brings his part perhaps more earnest gravity than the film can use. Semi-wasted once again, Garofalo makes the most of her few droll lines and a running exasperation gag with doofus deputy Vince Vieluf (named Barney, as in “The Andy Griffith Show’s” Don Knotts role). Other perfs are OK.

Despite Dobkin’s shying away from overt gore, pic’s air of jaunty (albeit somewhat flat) humor, plus its lack of genuine tension or character empathy, renders the serial-sadist aspect slightly distasteful, even irresponsible. But it’s all watchable, hitting a stylized, laconic-yokel-land atmospheric target (a la “Fargo” and “Badlands”) with confidence, if little of the wit or conviction necessary to approach those pics’ standard.

Likewise, visual flourishes (handsomely lensed by Eric Edwards on Utah locales standing in for Montana) are polished but derivative, with too many time-lapse sky views, reminiscent of Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho.” Other tech factors are high-grade. John Lurie’s score is abetted by a roster of cleverly chosen old country and easy-listening tunes.

Clay Pigeons

Production

A Gramercy Pictures release of a Scott Free production. Produced by Ridley Scott, Chris Zarpas. Executive producers, Tony Scott, Guy East, Nigel Sinclair. Co-producers, Chris Dorr, Carrie Morrow, Andrey Kelly. Directed by David Dobkin. Screenplay, Matt Healy. Reviewed at Variety Club Screening Room, San Francisco, Sept. 8, 1998.

Crew

Camera (color), Eric Edwards; editor, Stan Salfas; music, John Lurie; music supervisor, Mary Ramos; production designer, Clark Hunter; art director, Max Biscoe; set decorator, Tracy Kirshbaum; costume designer, Laura Goldsmith; sound (Dolby Digital), Robert Eber; associate producer, Hilarie Roope Benz; assistant director, Matias Alvarez; second unit director, Dobkin; second unit camera, Richard Rutkowski; casting, Risa Bramon Garcia, Randi Hiller. (In Toronto Film Festival -- Contemporary World Cinema.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 104 MIN.

With

Lester Long - Vince Vaughn Dale Shelby - Janeane Garofalo Clay Bidwell - Joaquin Phoenix Amanda - Georgina Cates Reynard - Phil Morris Sheriff Mooney - Scott Wilson Deputy Barney - Vince Vieluf Gloria - Nikki Arlyn Kimberly - Monica Moench Glen - Joseph D. Reitman Earl - Gregory Sporleder

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