One Hour Photo
There's nothing more dangerous than a familiar face
Directed by Mark Romanek
Running Length: 96 minutes
Think about photographs for just a moment. You probably don’t, or not very much. The last time you or a member of your family took a roll to be developed, what were the subjects upon which you or your loved ones expended valuable film? Would you assess this informal portfolio as indicative of your lifestyle and sense of well-being? Does the proportional quantity of smiling people in family photographs accurately represent the abundance of smiles generally expended on a day-to-day basis, or might one say that the darker, deeper truth of displeasure, depression, disease, dishonesty, dreariness, or death that permeates all of our lives without exception is absent from our Kodak moments? While such exclusion is simply the result of a desire to cull only our best memories into photo albums, it can’t be healthy to pretend the unhappy moments don’t exist altogether. Or can it?
These are the types of questions One Hour Photo implies in its opening moments, and it continues to ask interesting questions until the film is over. With a tight script that doesn’t waste words, an eerily real cast of characters, and subtly visual direction that engages the audience’s brain as well as just the eyes and ears, writer-director Mark Romanek has created a simple thriller that, while holding few surprises, will continue to haunt you well after the final credits roll.
Sy Parrish (Robin Williams, who also played a crazy wacko named Alan Parrish in Jumanji) is a clerk at a 1-hour photo lab at a SavMart, and has been for 11 years. He wears Velcro shoes, blue pants, and bad ties. He has no friends. Sy likes his job, and he is very good at it. It is of vital importance to Sy that all of your pictures turn out gorgeously, with none of the washed out, too dark, or strangely colored look that might be found in pictures developed at other, less quality-conscious one hour photo labs.
Unfortunately, Sy’s boss, Bill Owens (Gary Cole, who also played an evil boss named Bill Lumbergh in Office Space) doesn’t appreciate him. Neither do the majority of the endless stream of strange customers that continually drop off their memories to be processed, developed, packaged, and returned to them in only an hour. The only pleasure Sy gets out of life comes from doing his job as well as he can and from his unhealthy attachment to a young suburban family whose film he habitually develops, which, as all unhealthy attachments committed to celluloid in southern California tend to do, leads invariably to trouble.
Sy fantasizes vividly about being a part of the happy Yorkin household. Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen, who also played an object of deluded and disturbing fantasy in Gladiator) has brought the occasional roll of film to him since her nine-year-old son was born. Since that time, Sy has been making an extra set of prints of each roll she deposits to be developed, enshrining them in his apartment in classic crazy wacko style, by putting them on his wall. Sy believes that, through the Yorkins, he can experience the type of emotional companionship that his life lacks, if only he can make them like him enough.
Unfortunately, not all is as well for the Yorkins as Sy might believe. Just as every other suburban household on the silver screen, the Yorkins aren’t happy. Nina is overly interested in material possessions, husband Will (Michael Vartan) is “emotionally neglectful,” and son Jake (Dylan Smith, who has never played anyone else before) plays soccer, a pastime that, more than anything else, dooms the typical American family to a life of misery, dysfunction, and despair. When Sy’s stalking begins to reveal hints of this reality, and particularly when his job at the photo lab begins to run into trouble, Sy takes matters into his own hands.
In resoundingly effective style, Robin Williams extends his dramatic repertoire just one more notch with One Hour Photo. Watching this simple character, to whom nothing is more important than beautiful photos and the sanctity of the Yorkin household, solve the problems he is presented with in original and creative ways is both riveting and frightening. For the moment, Williams has traded heartwarming projects for interesting ones, and with this movie and Insomnia, American cinema has only benefited. One can only hope that he continues to flex his acting muscle in similar fashion for years to come.
As could only be expected from a movie about photographs, One Hour Photo is visually stunning in a subtly revealing sort of way. Romanek prefers to make creative use of color, framing, and lighting, rather than chatty dialogue, to paint his characters on the screen. As scriptwriter as well, he is certainly free to do just that. While his mostly original script does tend to run out of ideas in the third act, the believable fashion in which this peculiar drama unfolds, as well as the commendable restraint in editing, carry the film to its conclusion without getting lost.
If the ingredients of a suspenseful thriller are police chases, grizzly murders, and beautiful naked women, One Hour Photo isn’t a suspenseful thriller. Even so, this lower budget, careful character study of a profoundly disturbed and interesting man who chooses to express his emotions by taking pictures rather than eating people certainly thrills.