ONE HOUR PHOTO
Director: Mark Romanek
Cast: Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Dylan Smith, Eriq La Salle, Gary Cole, Erin Daniels, Paul Hansen Kim
MPAA Rating: (for sexual content and language)
Running Time: 1:38
Release Date: 8/21/02
Review by Mark Dujsik
What makes One Hour Photo equally sad and creepy is that at some point we all have known or at present do know someone like its antihero. There are sad and lonely people like Sy Parrish, and by the end of One Hour Photo you’ll either want to give them all a big hug or tell everyone you love and care about to stay as far away from them as possible. Sy is a character as memorable as Norman Bates but without the psychotic tendencies (Sy’s are more sociopathic by definition), but the film is not a clear thriller like Psycho. This is a character study first and foremost, and writer/director Mark Romanek and Robin Williams manage to get under this character’s skin and into his mind. The film builds and builds without anything particularly important or devastating happening—at least not to us "normal" folks—but because the film has such a clear understand of Sy and allows the audience into his world so completely, we know only bad things can come of the relatively mundane chain of events.
Sy is a photo developer at the local discount retailer Sav-Mart. It isn’t an ordinary job for Sy—it’s a way of life. "Photographs are a way to stop time," he muses. "They tell someone, ‘I was here. I existed.’" So Sy takes his job with the utmost seriousness and care. There’s an art to the way he develops photos; they have to be just right—too many people over- or under-develop most photographs. He knows most of the regular customers on a first-name basis. A family, in particular, stands out. The Yorkins: mother Nina (Connie Nielsen), father Will (Michael Vartan), and son Jakob (Dylan Smith). He lives downtown but still makes the long drive to come into work each day. Most of his apartment is surprisingly bare except for one wall, which contains a gigantic montage of Yorkin family photos. Sy sees something in this family—something too perfect, something that’s been missing from his life, and something he wants to be a part of. Even though the Yorkins really only know him as "Sy the Photo Guy," Sy likes to imagine a world where he could be "Uncle Sy."
The movie isn’t a thriller, but it seems like one. Romanek accomplishes this by lessening the comfort level surrounding our relationship with Sy. We know from the start that Sy has done or is at least suspected of doing something wrong. The film starts in a police interrogation room (incredibly and probably purposefully reminiscent of the finale of Psycho). The story unfolds in flashbacks as he tells a detective the story of what led him there. As he inches closer and closer the Yorkins in his tale, our viewpoint subtly shifts. At first, we fear what the Yorkins will do to this sad, lonely man if they discover him, but as Sy starts to lose his mental stability, we begin to fear what he might do to them. The scenes become more and more uncomfortable, as this man we quickly identified with becomes lost in a world of dangerous psychoses.
The most important element of the film is giving the audience a clear understanding of Sy. Romanek takes his time to draw his world. It’s sort of like a photo, actually. At first, we’ve got a relatively blank slate; then tiny details begin to develop. By the end of the film, we’ve got the full picture (literally, in this case), but we also have a full grip on the background, the undertones, and the little details—the things that give us, in the hackneyed sense, the big picture. We start to slowly understand that Sy’s problems have been building for a long time. We get little clues: Sy has no photographs of his family (in one rather sad moment, we realize the ruse of a photograph Sy purchases at a garage sale), cries at the random photographs taken by young Jakob (an innocent perspective of the world unblemished by experience), and divulges random and cryptic information about his childhood. The film challenges us to sympathize with this man, who has good and honest intentions but goes about fulfilling them in a completely wrong and unfair way.
In Robin Williams, Romanek has cast the ideal actor to play Sy. In just this year, Williams has been breaking the perception that he only plays likable, cheery roles in cloying, manipulative movies by taking on parts as a deranged kid show host in Death to Smoochy (Williams was the bright spot in that awful endeavor) and a writer driven to murder in the remake of Insomnia. His performance here is easily his best, most startling work to date. Williams has always had an Everyman sort of quality, and his performance here rests on hooking us immediately and then pulling the rug out. This is a layered, virtuoso performance. Watching Sy’s calm, solitary persona slowly transform into the wild, raging mad dog of his crime is a prime example of unadulterated subtlety. It’s the best performance of an actor so far this year, and I’m sure it will remain one of the best by the end of the year. The rest of the cast is perfectly fine, but Williams purposely overshadows them.
One Hour Photo is a striking, challenging character study that manages to maintain its roots even when treading into psychological thriller territory. The final chain of events becomes a little shaky as we try to figure out not what actually happened, but what there’s physical evidence for. If there is evidence, Sy actually did what he’s accused of, and he’s more demented than we could imagine. If there isn’t, he only feigned his crime, and his actions have a demented justice to them. The last shot essentially sums up the film’s central thesis. Whether he was right or wrong, Sy’s actions have made him a part of this family.
Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.