"One Hour Photo" tells the story of Seymour "Sy" Parrish, who works behind the photo counter of one of those vast suburban retail barns. He has a bland, anonymous face, and a cheerful voice that almost conceals his desperation and loneliness. He takes your film, develops it, and has your photos ready in an hour. Sometimes he even gives you 5-by-7s when all you ordered were 4-by-6s. His favorite customers are the Yorkins--Nina, Will and cute young Jake. They've been steady customers for years. When they bring in their film, he makes an extra set of prints--for himself.
Sy follows an unvarying routine. There is a diner where he eats, alone, methodically. He is an "ideal employee." He has no friends, a co-worker observes. But the Yorkins serve him as a surrogate family, and he is their self-appointed Uncle Sy. Only occasionally does the world get a glimpse of the volcanic side of his personality, as when he gets into an argument with Larry, the photo machine repairman.
The Yorkins know him by name, and are a little amused by his devotion. There is an edge of need to his moments with them. If they were to decide to abandon film and get one of those new digital cameras, a prudent instinct might lead them to keep this news from Sy. Robin Williams plays Sy, another of his open-faced, smiling madmen, like the killer in "Insomnia." He does this so well you don't have the slightest difficulty accepting him in the role. The first time we see Sy behind his counter, neat, smiling, with a few extra pounds from the diner routine, we buy him. He belongs there. He's native to retail.
The Yorkin family is at first depicted as ideal: models for an ad for their suburban lifestyle. Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen), pretty and fresh-scrubbed, has a cheery public persona. Will (Michael Vartan) is your regular clean-cut guy. Young Jake (Dylan Smith) is cute as a picture. Mark Romanek, who wrote and directed the film, is sneaky in the way he so subtly introduces discordant elements into his perfect picture. A tone of voice, a half-glimpsed book cover, a mistaken order, a casual aside ... they don't mean much by themselves, but they add up to an ominous cloud, gathering over the photo counter.
Much of the film's atmosphere forms through the cinematography, by Jeff Cronenweth. His interiors at "Savmart" are white and bright, almost aggressive. You can hear the fluorescent lights humming. Through choices involving set design and lens choices, the One Hour Photo counter somehow seems an unnatural distance from the other areas of the store, as if the store shuns it, or it has withdrawn into itself. Customers approach it across an exposed expanse of emptiness, with Sy smiling at the end of the trail.
A man who works in a one-hour photo operation might seem to be relatively powerless. Certainly Sy's boss thinks so. But in an era when naked baby pictures can be interpreted as child abuse, the man with access to your photos can cause you a lot of trouble. What would happen, for example, if Will Yorkin is having an affair, and his mistress brings in photos to be developed, and Uncle Sy "mistakenly" hands them to Nina Yorkin? The movie at first seems soundly grounded in everyday reality, in the routine of a predictable job. When Romanek departs from reality, he does it subtly, sneakily, so that we believe what we see until he pulls the plug. There is one moment I will not describe (in order not to ruin it) when Sy commits a kind of social trespass that has the audience stirring with quiet surprise: Surprise, because until they see the scene they don't realize that his innocent, everyday act can be a shocking transgression in the wrong context.
Watching the film, I thought of Michael Powell's great 1960 British thriller "Peeping Tom," which was about a photographer who killed his victims with a stiletto concealed in his camera. Sy uses a psychological stiletto, but he's the same kind of character, the sort of man you don't much notice, who blends in, accepted, overlooked, left alone so that his rich secret life can flower. There is a moment in "Peeping Tom" when a shot suddenly reveals the full depth of the character's depravity. In "One Hour Photo," a shot with a similar purpose requires only a lot of innocent family snapshots, displayed in a way that is profoundly creepy.
The movie has also been compared to "American Beauty," another film where resentment, loneliness and lust fester beneath the surface of suburban affluence. The difference, I think, is that the needs of the Kevin Spacey character in "American Beauty," while frowned upon and even illegal, fall generally within the range of emotions we understand. Sy Parrish is outside that range. He was born with parts missing, and has assembled the remainder into a person who has borrowed from the inside to make the outside look OK.
Robin Williams gives what may well be the performance of his career in `One Hour Photo,' a creepy psychological thriller written and directed with cool precision by Mark Romanek. Given its premise, the film could easily have degenerated into a sordid, exploitative tale of obsession and madness. Instead, Romanek has chosen to take a more subtle approach, fashioning a film that downplays the potential violence of its material while, at the same time, recognizing the humanity of its central figure.
Romanek understands that the greatest threats to our safety and lives often come from the gray, nondescript people who surround us unnoticed, the `nobodies' whose benign faces and vacuous smiles reveal no trace of the insanity, evil and potential for doing us harm that may be lurking right there under the surface. And nobody is `grayer' than Si Parrish, an innocuous, socially undeveloped milquetoast who spends his days working as a photo developer in one of those sterile five-and-dime drug stores (just like the one in `The Good Girl') - and his nights sitting all alone in his drab apartment brooding over a massive family-photo shrine he has erected to the Yorkins, a seemingly happy family of three whose pictures Si has been developing, copying and obsessing over for more than seven years now. The film centers around Si's growing fixation with this one family and his delusional belief that he too could somehow become an integral part of their family unit. Then comes the day when Si realizes that he is no longer content to be a mere vicarious member of this adopted family and, thus, begins his plan to gradually insinuate himself more and more directly into their lives.
As both writer and director, Romanek manages to keep us in a state of vague uneasiness throughout. We are always anticipating some potentially dreadful event, yet Romanek doesn't go for the easy thrill or the obvious plot turn. Thanks to Williams' subtle, incisive performance, we come to understand something of what makes this strange character tick. We begin to sense the deep-seated loneliness and social awkwardness that have come to play such an important part in defining both his behavior and his character. Si is scary, but he is also pathetic. He may have slipped over the edge into madness, but it is a pathology rooted in overwhelming loneliness and the inability to `fit in' to the societal `norm' of marriage and family. Even when his character is at his most threatening and irrational, Williams somehow makes us care about him.
Romanek hits upon a few ancillary themes as well. He acknowledges how photos create the appearance of a life without necessarily reflecting the reality of that life. Most people, Si confesses, record only the `special, happy' moments of their lives birthdays, weddings, holidays etc. and leave out the mundane or painful ones. Moreover, Si tells us that people use pictures as a way of defeating aging and time, of saying to the world of the future that `I', this seemingly insignificant person, was really here, being happy and enjoying life. To match this theme, Romanek's visual style often feels like the director's own personal homage to The Photograph, as the camera scans caressingly across a sea of snapshots and Si's voiceover narration complements that feeling.
`One Hour Photo' is not a film for those who like their chills heavily laced with bloodshed, murder and mayhem. It is, rather, for those who can appreciate a quietly unsettling, yet strangely compassionate glimpse into the dark recesses of the troubled mind.
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