Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What-to-Watch Wednesday - Copycat (1995)

When Copycat was first released in theaters, I was in college at the University of Delaware.  I remember going to see it with some college friends and most of us thinking it was pretty good.  Then I saw it reviewed on the campus TV network by some pseudo-intellectual, elitist student "critics" who were more concerned about nitpicking the film to prove their superiority and coming up with yet another sarcastic quip.

One of the reviewers pointed out a scene in which it appears Holly Hunter's character, Inspector Monahan, picks a hair from her partner's jacket and seemingly drops it into a crime scene, hopelessly contaminating it, according to the reviewer.  This was pointed out in an effort to show how ridiculous the movie was since it didn't adhere to the strict CSI guidelines with which this reviewer was apparently well acquainted.

Never mind the obvious detail that it was a dead crime scene, that the CSI had already worked on the scene and were obviously packing up their equipment.  Never mind that Monahan let the hair fly off in the wind away from the crime scene.  And, never mind that this was a movie making larger points than the minuscule details with which this reviewer appeared to be so obsessed.

No, the movie was trash because of one flying hair.

Although I am not a film critic, I have learned something about film criticism from years of reading film reviews: if you don't attempt to hold a movie accountable by the standards it sets for itself, you will always be disappointed and miss something crucial about the film in the process.

For instance, this reviewer failed to see that Holly Hunter and Sigourney Weaver are interestingly cast against type in this film.  Holly Hunter as the tough, no-nonsense detective with crackshot aim, and Sigourney Weaver as the reserved and intellectual psychologist, Dr. Helen Hudson, who suffers from agoraphobia.  There was also no mention of how their characters' strengths and weaknesses are craftily accentuated in their scenes together: Weaver is always sitting while Hunter is often standing, poised and composed - the two are never shot together standing side-by-side, mainly because Weaver (at six feet tall) towers over the diminutive Hunter, and the physical difference would have ruined the effect.

There is also the fact that in casting women as the protagonists trying to take down a depraved serial killer, the film in effect is empowering the typical victims of serial killers to fight back against those who would prey upon them.  Instead of some macho male cop charging in at the last minute to save his ladylove, Copycat gives us two vastly different female characters working together to outsmart a lunatic and stop his killing spree.

Of particular note is Holly Hunter's performance as Inspector Monahan.  In a movie that is basically a crime procedural, Hunter finds moments to flesh out Monahan and suggest a long history for the character.  Take her first major scene.  Monahan is walking through a house in which a murder has been committed, taking in the details of the scene, all while putting on a chipper smile and speaking with a gentle mother-like whisper whenever she comes across one of her fellow officers.

Very quickly, it becomes apparent that her gentle demeanor masks a tough interior as she gently interrogates the officer who first arrived on the scene.  She picks up on the fact that he is withholding information through his subtle word choice and keeps questioning him until she finds out what she wants to know.

I don't know if this moment was part of the script or something Hunter came up with while developing the character, but what is apparent is that it is a choice made by the character for a reason.  Maybe as a female detective she has learned that this is the best approach for coaxing information out of people.  Maybe as a confident individual who has earned the respect of her peers, she doesn't feel the need to waltz into a crime scene and start busting balls.

Both of these could be true along with a few other possibilities.  The important thing is that a scene that could have been just a routine exercise in exposition becomes a small character study.  It is moments like these that make Copycat a cut above the rest.

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