If any genre has been overworked in independent American cinema, it’s the ‘quirky’ small-town crime comedy-drama, but this effort from director David Dobkin (later of Shanghai Knights and The Wedding Crashers) and writer Matthew L. Healy works well, rethinking Patricia Highsmith themes in a modern Western setting.
Clay (Joaquin Phoenix), an amiable but weak-willed fellow, is in a bad situation — the husband (Gregory Sporleder) of the slut (Georgina Cates) he’s been sleeping with kills himself while they’re out shooting at beer bottles and sets it up so it looks like he’s guilty. His mistress tells him he’s on his own, so he has to dispose of the body in a staged drunken car wreck which he gets away with because the Sheriff (Scott Wilson) knows he’s such a nice guy that he wouldn’t do anything wicked. However, the nongrieving widow still pesters him in the local bar. When he slaps her, the violence to a woman piques the interest of cowboy-hatted fast-talker ‘Lester Long’ (Vince Vaughn), who cosies up to him but is also a serial killer who’s been working in the state. Lester kills a waitress Clay has dated and Clay, getting into the habit, dumps the body in the lake, but when Lester and Clay go out fishing another naked female corpse bobs up. Clay, painting himself further into a corner, agrees to keep Lester out of it when he goes to the cops. It’s only when Lester kills the widow that Clay catches on that he’s the guilty party – but, by this time, he looks like the prime suspect, especially when a FBI agent (Janeane Garofalo) shows up in town after the serial killer and starts to catch Clay out in his various lies.
The leading men both pretend to be dumber than they are, with Phoenix taking the subdued role of the man in trouble, while Vaughn, in far more distinctive turn than his take on Norman Bates, is a memorable, mephistophelean serial killer, a charming misogynist with an affected laugh and singing cowboy clothes who seems genuinely to feel friendship for his fall guy (a Tom Ripley touch) even as he views women as less than human. The last act is cluttered, with a few too many unlikelinesses as Lester promises to murder yet another innocent (Naomi Watts lookalike Monica Moench) in order to prove that the imprisoned Clay is innocent, prompting Clay to break out by duping the dumb deputy (Garofalo raises an eyebrow when she learns this boob’s name is Barney, an Andy Griffith Show reference liable to bypass Brits) and face him down. In an odd little side-scene, Lester charms the FBI agent in a bar almost for practice but drops her instantly when his younger, prettier potential victim shows up (exactly the move that makes her spot a distinctively-broken cigarette which tips her off that he’s the killer). Some of the small-town cloddery is a little too broad, but the principle players are excellent. A terrific song-collage soundtrack adds to the jolly, sinister mood.