Every age, it’s often said, gets the entertainment it deserves, and no one living in today’s America can doubt that we’re experiencing an era of near-paranoid obsession with crime and personal safety.
We double-lock our doors, purchase whatever security systems we can afford, insist on more prisons and demand three-strikes-and-you’re-out legislation because we’re worried sick about courts being too soft on those who would harm us.
But though terrified of real-life violence, we paradoxically can’t seem to stay away from it on screen. We pay the market price to have our most fearful fantasies confirmed, to see vivid visualizations of our worst nightmares, the more vivid the better. And, Lord help us, we call that fun.
Which is all by way of saying that America seems to have gone serial killer mad. “Seven,” a grotesque examination of a perverse criminal mind, was No. 1 at the nation’s box office for four weeks running, and now, joining in the plague, comes “Copycat,” which features not one but two serial killers for devotees to choose from.
Though “Copycat” is not as across-the-board repulsive as “Seven,” this is not for lack of trying, as director Jon Amiel and writers Ann Biderman and David Madsen have loaded the film with terrorized women and graphic close-ups of tortured female corpses.
But, by having Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter play the maniacs’ feisty antagonists, the filmmakers seem to believe that they’ve made a significant feminist statement, the movie’s two hours-plus of almost continual sadistic abuse of women notwithstanding. Even in an industry known for self-delusion, that is quite a feat.
Weaver is introduced first as Helen Hudson, a criminal psychologist who is the world’s leading authority on the serial killer breed. Some of that knowledge apparently comes firsthand: Hudson is almost immediately attacked, tormented and trussed up like a Christmas goose ripe for killing by cretinous psychopath Daryll Lee Collum (Harry Connick Jr.). Though Collum is captured, that attack, not surprisingly, so traumatizes Hudson that she becomes a prisoner in her swank San Francisco apartment. But she still has a rooting interest in the serial killer game, and enjoys anonymously second-guessing the doltish police when a new mass murderer makes an appearance.
Trying to solve the murders is Police Detective M.J. Monahan (Hunter), the standard-issue “one pushy broad” kind of tough cop with a cute young guy (Dermot Mulroney) for a partner. Monahan finds out about Hudson and makes her a part of the investigative team. Together, in a same-sex riff on Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” they form a Ms. Inside and Ms. Outside combination, attempting to double-team the wacko of the moment.
That wacko turns out to be a fan of the imprisoned Daryll Lee. More than that, he idolizes all the great serial killers of the recent past. Kind of like an Elvis impersonator with a will to kill, he’s a conscious duplicator of the work of twisted legends such as the Boston Strangler, the Hillside Strangler and Son of Sam.
A fair amount of this creepy film is told through the eyes of the maniac, as we watch him calmly stalking victims or cheerfully attacking them. Like most of the world’s serial killers, he has a thing for Hudson (“I’m their pin-up girl,” she explains to M.J. in a typically fake-glib line of dialogue) and he’s soon simultaneously stalking her while running through his regular list of victims.
The most interesting questions “Copycat” raises have little to do with this unfortunate script or its predictable ending. Are roles for talented actresses so limited that they’re eager to appear in such unsavory, exploitative films? Or does someone like Weaver, with a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama, really think that being bound, gagged and humiliated not once but twice like an outtake from a bondage video is what fine acting is all about?
A bigger, probably unanswerable question, is why audiences embrace this kind of material with such avidity. Are we so jaded, our lives so overloaded with sensation, that we need something as excessive as “Copycat” or “Seven” to arouse our interest? Why is getting a rise out of audiences by any means necessary something to boast about? And when did watching people being graphically tortured become America’s favorite form of theatrical entertainment?
And isn’t it also possible that these films are making viewers unrealistically fearful for their personal safety and thus having a pernicious influence on public policy? And isn’t it becoming increasingly true, to quote Lt. Col. David Grossman’s “On Killing,” a recent study on how soldiers act in battle, that “we are reaching that stage of desensitization at which the inflicting of pain and suffering has become a source of entertainment: vicarious pleasure rather than revulsion. We are learning to kill, and we are learning to like it.”
Though pornography has always been a difficult concept to define satisfactorily, one way it has been traditionally looked at is as a one-step-beyond phenomenon, showing us things either sexual or violent that go one step beyond what society normally tolerates. In that context, “Copycat” seems pornographically intent on pushing the envelope of what is acceptable for thrillers on screen. If the trend continues it is not at all pleasant to contemplate where everything will end.
* MPAA rating: R, for violence and language. Times guidelines: A series of graphic murders and attacks is depicted.
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Sigourney Weaver: Helen Hudson
Holly Hunter: M.J. Monahan
Dermot Mulroney: Ruben Goetz
William McNamara: Peter Foley
Harry Connick Jr.: Daryll Lee Collum
J.E. Freeman: Lt. Quinn
Will Patton: Nicoletti
John Rothman: Andy
Regency Enterprises presents, a Arnon Milchan production, released by Warner Bros. Director Jon Amiel. Producers Arnon Milchan, Mark Tarlov. Executive producers Michael Nathanson, John Fiedler. Screenplay Ann Biderman and David Madsen. Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. Editors Alan Heim, Jim Clark. Costumes Claudia Brown. Music Christopher Young. Production design Jim Clay. Art director Chris Seagers. Set decorator Catherine Davis. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.