‘Clay Pigeons’ Blu-Ray Review – Joaquin Phoenix And Vince Vaughn Anchor Entertaining Pitch Black Crime Comedy

Clay Pigeons was a film I first happened upon over a decade ago as I was excavating the On Demand selection my cable provider had offered up. The film quickly came and went upon its debut in 1998, but the cast alone fated it to be discovered at some point for the twisted gem that it was. With a pre-Gladiator (and certainly pre-Joker) Joaquin Phoenix and recently crowned indie darlings Vince Vaughn (Swingers) and Janeane Garofalo (Reality Bites), the film was working with a stacked deck. Director David Dobkin would have greater financial success reteaming with Vaughn on Wedding Crashers, but his feature directorial debut feels like Dobkin at his most daring, even if he is doing his best imitation of the Coen Bros. This delightfully unsavory tale injects whispers of a film noir aesthetic along with strong doses of comedy into murder and betrayal, and for the most part it really works. With this new release from Kino Lorber, it is time for this film to have a new life. 

Phoenix plays the everyman type Clay Bidwell who finds himself being slowly boiled alive by bad decisions that he keeps making with good intentions. From the very first scene events escalate quickly as Clay and his best friend Earl (Gregory Sporleder, The Rock) go from having a drunken good time shooting bottles to a tense confrontation over the fact that Clay has been sleeping with Earl’s wife, Amanda (Georgina Cates). When Earl ends up dead and Amanda refuses to cop to the affair, Clay makes the hasty decision to make Earl’s death look like a drunken accident. This one poor choice sets Clay up for a world of stress as he seeks to break off his relationship with Amanda, the not-so-grieving widow who does not want to let Clay go so easily. Sheriff Dan Mooney (Scott Wilson, The Walking Dead) accepts Clay’s version of events, but things are further complicated by the arrival of Lester Long (Vaughn), an exuberant out-of-towner who forms a friendship with Clay, but may or may not have something to do with the rising body count in the area. 

With as much thematically dark content as the film is dealing with, it is refreshing to have it accompanied by some pitch black comedy to lighten the load. Vince Vaughn is responsible for most of this. Lester fancies himself something of a cowboy, but you can see the cracks in his facade for the projection he is trying so hard to maintain. It is not surprising that this film was released in the same year Vaughn would take on the Norman Bates role in Psycho, even if this role gives him much more leeway to be a bit silly. The dynamic he has with Clay is fascinating, as he seeks to both manipulate this hapless gentleman and try to build an unhealthy friendship with him. Phoenix plays it fairly straight, but he handles the tension of his situation like the pro we know him to be. Janeane Garofalo may not be the perfect complement to this duo as FBI Agent Dale Shelby, but she does a reasonably fine job in this self-assured role. While not top-billed, Scott Wilson is the unsung hero of the film as the seemingly too-trusting authority figure who has more smarts than he lets on. 

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The direction from Dobkin is very assured considering it is his first time helming a feature. He does not lean full-tilt into the film noir aesthetic that the movie flirts with, but the bits of stylization he sprinkles throughout gives the film some extra pep without seeming like it’s trying to be cool. The strongest aspect from him might be his eye for editing both from the overall runtime that lacks any noticeable fat, as well as the precise cutting he does within a scene from angle to angle to maintain maximum mystery. In the special features section you get a trailer for the film’s soundtrack, and this late-90s collection of alternative essentials works well within this setting that feels a bit off the beaten path. Clay Pigeons can be brutal and thrilling when it wants to be, but you never feel like you need to take a shower afterwards thanks to the irreverent humor that welcomes you inside. It is not a film that is often spoken about, but given the joy brought about by the screenplay and performance it deserves more. 

Video Quality

Clay Pigeons makes its Blu-Ray debut with a 1080p transfer in its original 1.85:1 that is pleasing enough from Kino Classics. While I have no specific details about the transfer, this appears to be derived from an older master from Universal that shows little signs of damage but some digital tinkering. For the majority of the film, the transfer looks clear and detailed with only a couple of shots exhibiting what would be labeled as density fluctuations in the grain field. The image quality is stable with some impressive detail in the production design and texture of clothing. Colors struggle very slightly in terms of saturations, but for the most part they do not look too unnatural. Black levels are pleasing in their depth, but a few moments struggle with delineation. Due to the style of the film, there are some harsh highlights that get clipped. There are no compression artifacts or other digital anomalies in the transfer. Overall, the presentation is one that holds up fairly well considering the low budget nature and age of the film. 

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Audio Quality

Kino Classics brings us this new Blu-Ray with both a lossless DTS-HD 5.1 and 2.0 Master Audio mix that are quite capable. The dialogue holds up quite nicely, coming through clearly for the most part with only a few instances where lines are stepped on by the music or sound effects. The environmental effects are not overwhelming but are delineated nicely throughout the speakers. The sounds of booming firearms bring some heft to the mix and reverberate to the rear speakers. The movie features a memorable soundtrack which sounds great within the mix. The low end is given a bit to work with from time to time, but dialogue is king in this presentation. This is a track that captures the feeling of this movie exactly as it needs to without being too much of a show off. 

Special Features

  • Audio Commentary: Director David Dobkin provides a new commentary track that is very worthwhile as he discusses the burgeoning directors of the 90s, the aesthetic choices within the film, the brilliance of the performers, his influences, making the most of his budget, the lessons he learned during production and much more. Dobkin is very thoughtful and straightforward in his insights which makes this one a real blast to experience. 
  • TV Spots: Three minutes of TV Spots are included here. 
  • Trailers: Four trailers for Clay Pigeons are included here including one of the soundtrack. There are also trailers provided for The Underneath, City of Industry, Bad Company, Big Trouble and Playing God


Final Thoughts

Clay Pigeons is an incredibly fun and twisty dark crime-comedy that is in desperate need of a larger audience. Joaquin Phoenix and Vince Vaughn have a natural chemistry with one another that keeps you glued to the screen during the spritely-paced feature. David Dobkin also showed real promise behind the camera in his feature directorial debut. Kino Classics has brought this under-appreciated gem to Blu-Ray with a decent A/V presentation and a couple of cool special features. If you are a fan of  the talent involved and love a good, offbeat crime story, do yourself a favor and pick this one up. Recommended 

Clay Pigeons is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray. 

Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.

Disclaimer: Kino Classics has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.

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