Copycat March 28, 2016
It must be fun for actors to make movies like 1995’s Copycat. It’s the kind of thrill machine that puts its characters in dangerous situations like it’s got nothing to lose, forcing them into pitch-black apartments where the killer might be lurking, to react in horror as they become victims of the bad guy’s taunts, to fake composure when the time is right only to wither into hysterics seconds later. Manipulative they are, but movies like Copycat latch onto my weak spot and break it down.
Sigourney Weaver, at her most sensational, stars as Helen Hudson, who, when we first meet her, is giving a lecture to a group of eager college students. A criminal psychologist who specializes in serial killers, she is self-assured and intellectual, an expert able to keep her analyses distant from reality based delusion. That all changes, though, when a former patient, the disturbed Daryll Lee Cullum (Harry Connick Jr.), sneaks into the women’s bathroom following the seminar and nearly kills her. The experience leaves her stripped of any sense of security, prompting her to become an alcoholic agoraphobe unable to get her life back together.
The film then picks up thirteen months later, a time where Helen’s fears can no longer be a setback. A series of bizarre serial murders has begun in San Francisco, sending panic throughout the city without warning. The police force is baffled, but Helen has a plausible hunch that may be too horrifying to admit; the predator, it seems, is modeling every individual murder after a specific act committed by a famed serial killer, whether he be adapting the strategies of Ted Bundy or Albert DeSalvo for a night. Hesitantly, Helen offers her expertise to the local officers directing the investigation, the hard-driving M.J. Monahan (Holly Hunter) and her partner, Ruben (Dermot Mulroney). A frantic chase thus ensues, but the killer is, unfortunately, a hard-to-predict murderous whiz who keeps them on the edge of their toes.
Immediately into Copycat do we begin to be reminded of David Fincher’s Se7en, released a few months earlier. Similar is the way its murderers both consider killing to be an art, a crime where the causation of suffering is most enjoyable if a sense of intricate infamy is also a part of the unsavoriness. Se7en is much more inherently wicked of a film than Copycat is, and it’s a little more intriguing because it is such a focused gut-punch when its counterpart isn’t. But both have different motives, Se7en a slimy thriller out to deconstruct the possibilities of evil, Copycat a superbly crafted popcorn movie.
And it isn’t abnormal to prefer popcorn to unshakable melancholy, so it’s a wonder that the film has become a sort of lost thrill ride in comparison to its resembling peer. It’s cunning, effective filmmaking to be sure, and we don’t regret the way we chew it up right up until its head-scratcher of an ending. In the tradition of Hitchcock (tonally, not stylistically), it makes something special out of what would normally be seen as a work of formula, making the most of an accomplished cast (Hunter and Weaver are sublime leads) and reminding us that clichéd techniques of enforcing suspense will never stop being suspenseful so long as they’re done right.
Copycat is a lot of fun — just keep it mind that you’ll have to be more than forgiving in regards to its conclusion, no doubt a result of writers aware they had a good thing going but got carried away in a windstorm of self-congratulating. But our hearts pound more than we’d like to admit, and we genuinely care about the fate of the characters. If those aren’t signs of a satisfying piece of escapism, then I don’t know what are. B+