Copycat (1995)


With the exception of a shot from Twin Peaks that pans down the westside to Ocean Beach, there’s almost nothing of San Francisco in this above average thriller starring Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Helen Hudson), the always compelling Holly Hunter (Inspector MJ Monhan) and an “eyebrows and handcuffs” Dermot Mulroney (Inspector Reuben Goetz).

The most compelling aspect of this film is probably the relationship between Hudson and Monahan. While the former’s skeletal elegance contrasts vividly with the latter’s bright-eyed toughness it’s a given that both women require grit to navigate their working worlds. As a criminal psychologist Hudson reaches into the abyss of violence in an effort to make sense of fundamentally irrational drives. And if Monahan’s connection to that milieu seems more direct it is freighted with its own ambiguities. Where Hudson is frantic– bombarded by panic attacks, usually with a drink in her hand– Monahan’s soft falsetto fronts a genial and nearly shatterproof sang froid.

The basic conceit– a serial killer in San Francisco plays the greatest hits of previous murderers such as the Boston Strangler and Son of Sam– has much to tell us about the principle of pastiche which became one of the most salient markers of late-20th century postmodernism. And yet more classical tropes prevail: Dr. Helen Hudson’s (Weaver) panic attacks are given visual form with Dutch angles and anamorphic lenses. Inspector Monahan’s (Hunter) boss– Lt. Quinn, an archetype of cop dramas– possesses an inexplicably New Yahk accent.

Then there is the figure of the serial killer himself (Peter Foley, played by William McNamara): unlike other inmates of the contemporary monsterium (sic) such as zombies and vampires, the serial killer is usually dramatized as a kind of artist whose obscene crimes represent an effort to communicate some damning message to a world s/he has already left behind. In this case our killer’s sole claim to originality lies with his studied efforts to emulate a string of prior serial killers. Foley’s obsession with detail– replicating older crime scenes by posing the victim’s body , etc.– suggests the paradox of the Retro: nostalgia forges something new from the old yet it’s also ultimately a dead end.