The new thriller Copycat (Warner Bros., R) is nasty, brutish, and long (over two bloody hours). It's also exciting, surprising, and a showcase for terrific, subtle performances by Sigourney Weaver and Holly Hunter. The movie is, in short, a trash conundrum.
Weaver plays Helen Hudson, a renowned forensic psychologist who's studied the behavior of serial killers for 20 years. Naturally, a few psychopaths have been studying her, too, and at the start of Copycat, we see one of them, Daryll Lee Cullum, brutally assault Helen, almost murdering her. (Daryll Lee is played by musician Harry Connick Jr. with rotted teeth, lots of cosmetic acne, and a moron's grin; the highest compliment I can give Connick's performance is to say that he's very nearly as scary here as he is when he does those Frank Sinatra impersonations on record.)
In the time after Daryll Lee's attack, the rattled Helen becomes a paranoid recluse. She never leaves her San Francisco apartment; human contact largely consists of that new gift to plugged-in agoraphobics, the Internet, on which she plays long-distance chess, flirts on chat lines, and keeps up-to-date on killer research. Now Helen's expertise is sought by Hunter's Det. M.J. Monahan and her partner, Ruben Goetz (Dermot Mulroney), trying to solve a series of murders they suspect are related. Helen realizes that a new loony is committing each of his crimes in the style of a different serial killer the Boston Strangler, Son of Sam, the Hillside Strangler, etc.
Unfortunately, the script for Copycat, by Ann Biderman and David Madsen, is nearly as rotten as Daryll Lee's teeth. No serial-killer cliche is left unstated; I'm usually baffled following thriller plots and predicting the next twist, but watching Copycat, there wasn't a moment when I couldn't predict what would happen next. What nearly redeems the movie is its acting. As Helen, Weaver is at once haughty, sarcastic, and deeply terrified the actress hasn't been this open and vulnerable on screen since her first starring role, in Eyewitness. Hunter provides a perfect contrast. Her M.J. is brisk and self-confident, with a mordant sense of humor. M.J. has found a professional style that works for her, and Hunter makes this detective's straightforward professionalism a pleasure to watch.
Then, too, there are quick little details in the movie that I loved: the way the imperious Weaver refers to the diminutive Hunter as ''the wee inspector''; the way Hunter and Mulroney, speeding in a patrol car to a murder scene, pause before getting out, to listen to a few more bars of a good R&B song on the radio.
Director Jon Amiel (Sommersby) has taken the simplistic story told here and added some quirkiness to this genre. The violence in Copycat is going to freak out fans of Hunter and Weaver, but then, the movie's emotional depth is going to shock your average slasher-film fan.