What the world would not seem to need right now is yet another serial killer thriller, but “Copycat” has both the smarts and the tension to rate as a potent entry in the overworked genre. An upscale suspenser by virtue of its classy cast , its extremely bright characters and the chillingly intellectual approach of the murderer, this shrewdly devised pulse-pounder may actually be too refined to click in a big way with mass audiences, while some fans of the two lead actresses may be put off by the threat of too much violence: Sigourney Weaver hasn’t been in this much screen jeopardy since the “Aliens” series. It will take strong reviews and marketing to give this a solid profile as a late fall B.O. attraction.
For some reason, Warner Bros., following a trend fashionable since “The Crying Game,” is requesting that the identity of the killer not be disclosed in reviews. Restriction seems pointless in this instance because it’s not that kind of film, as the criminal mastermind, played by Harry Connick Jr., is introduced in the opening scene, while his protege turns up less than half-way through. Audience suspense is not at all related to whodunnit, but to how the insidiously ingenious villain will be tracked down.
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Film’s promise of being intelligent and agonizing is established at the outset. Criminal psychologist Helen Hudson (Weaver), such an expert on serial killers that she ironically refers to herself as “their damn pinup girl,” delivers a tart lecture in which she points out that 90% of all serial killers are white males between 20 and 35 years old. It turns out one of them, redneck Daryll Lee Cullum (Connick), is in the audience; in a very tense scene, he circumvents security, kills a cop and nearly finishes off Hudson in a bathroom before being caught.
Thirteen months later, Cullum has been put away but Hudson also is a prisoner , as her trauma has made her so agoraphobic she can’t bear to leave her apartment or return to her job.
But when homicide detective M.J. Monahan (Holly Hunter) is faced with some murders that suggest a new serial killer, she and her partner Ruben (Dermot Mulroney) pay a call on Hudson, whose interest is inevitably piqued by the kinky details of the cases.
As the murders mount, Hudson, with her computer and her encyclopedic knowledge, figures out that the psychopath is imitating some of the most infamous serial killers — the Boston Strangler, the Hillside Strangler, Son of Sam, etc. This is a murderer with a sense of history, killings as homages to the masters. As chillingly insightful as Hudson’s discovery may be, it still doesn’t help much, as there is no way of knowing which fiend the villain will choose to emulate next, and in what fashion. The premise is diabolical, and quite creepy to watch unfold.
At the same time, genuine interest is generated in the main characters thanks to better-than-usual writing for this sort of piece and ultra-sharp performances by the lead thesps. Bitingly cynical, somewhat bitter but not without a healthy sense of ironic humor, Hudson is smart as a whip, and Weaver is expert at expressing these qualities.
Hunter’s cop reps an appealing change of pace from something like “The Piano, ” with her small, high-pitched voice contrasting amusingly with her ultra-professional demeanor and kick-ass attitude in the trenches. The subtle ways in which Hunter’s petite but very capable character deals with the various pressures from men at headquarters add a bracing subtext to her behavior, and the tentative manner in which she and Hudson express their interest in the attractive Ruben is nicely nuanced.
Hudson’s agoraphobia sticks out as something of a genre contrivance, in that her consequent confinement makes her an obvious sitting duck for the killer.
Coming so soon on the heels of the popular “Seven,” the Murder as Art motif, underlined by use of the Police song “Murder by Numbers,” is in danger of becoming shopworn, but the films otherwise differ widely in approach and aesthetic.
Ending is on the conventional side, more so than anything else in the picture , but script by Ann Biderman and David Madsen keeps the tart surprises coming throughout most of the picture with only occasional lapses into red herrings and artificial manipulation.
Director Jon Amiel brings an unusual intelligence and respect for the characters to the heavily plowed cop-vs.-killer format, always focusing on the essentials of scenes while filling out the edges with arresting touches and inflections. At the same time, he delivers the nerve-racking goods in the final showdown between Hudson and her nemesis. Supporting performances are on the money, while behind-the-scenes contributions are outstanding, notably Laszlo Kovacs’ vivid, atmospheric cinematography, the tense editing by Alan Heim and Jim Clark, and the exceptionally evocative score of Christopher Young.