REVIEW: Copycat (1995)

The Silence of the Lambs (1991) was by no means the first Hollywood entertainment made out of serial killers, but its critical and commercial success did stimulate an unprecedented wave of similar and derivative works that barreled along for close to a decade before finally slowing down. One of the many films to see release over this period is Jon Amiel’s 1995 thriller Copycat. While not a patch on Lambs – how many films are? – it seems to have as much going for it as it has things letting it down. It is a pulpy, watchable mixed bag.

In Copycat, San Francisco falls prey to a new serial killer who keeps shifting the nature of his crimes to replicate the work of other famous killers. In her attempt to identify the murderer, police detective M.J. Monahan (Holly Hunter) seeks out groundbreaking psychologist Dr Helen Hudson (Sigourney Weaver) – an alcoholic and agoraphobic who has survived an attempted murder attempt at the hands of another, now-imprisoned, killer (Harry Connick Jr).

It is great to see a thriller of this nature focus on two capable, intelligent woman. It is particularly great to see them played by Hunter and Weaver – two of their generation’s most talented and effective actors. Each is afforded plenty of depth and development in their characters as well, and that helps lift Copycat above being a simple run-of-the-mill exercise in violence and suspense. There is also solid supporting work from Dermot Mulroney, Will Patton, and Harry Connick Jr – whose performance, though wildly exaggerated, is certainly memorable.

The premise is, however, an absolute nonsense. The concept of a serial killer copying other serial killers flies against real-life behaviours; the film’s screenplay admits as much, essentially in an attempt to squeeze the concept past the audience without looking foolish. There are also a few key sequences that only work if individual characters behave in uncharacteristic ways, which is a constant bugbear of the genre. The script comes from Ann Biderman and David Madsen – Biderman has gone on to bigger and better things, including Primal Fear, Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and creating and writing police drama Southland.

Jon Amiel keeps the film at a brisk, engaging pace, and has a good sense for the film’s suspenseful moments. László Kovács’s cinematography and Christopher Young’s score are both very traditional in style, but remain nicely atmospheric.

Probably the film’s greatest strength is its embrace of female protagonists. It stands in contrast to The Silence of the Lambs, which also focused on a female lead but which deliberately framed her as an inexperienced, young woman surrounded by male mentors and father figures. Here both Monahan and Hudson are women with established careers and demonstrated skills. In a sense they are written to actively resist a male influence: Monahan in particular spends a fair amount of the film rebuffing both her partner’s (Mulroney) and a former boyfriend’s (Patton) advances. Given that the serial killer genre is traditionally dominated by themes of male violence and against women, the strong female focus is a tremendous asset.

Sadly it does seem to fall apart in the climax, due to some sensationalistic plotting and egregious over-acting. The characters deserved something better.

Copycat is an imperfect film, but in a packed wave of derivative works it manages to rise above the surface and stake a bit of territory in the genre for its own. If nothing else it is a great showcase for Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver; creative pairings such as this are wonderful to see.

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