Shot of fear

A Miss America  pageant official  verifies the  authenticity of  contestents’ breasts.

A Miss America pageant official verifies the authenticity of contestents’ breasts.

Rated 4.0

From the opening shot of One Hour Photo, it is clear that we are going to see something very different and extremely uncomfortable.

The shot is of Robin Williams, practically unrecognizable, looking disheveled, beaten and despairing. After posing for a mug shot, his character sits down with a police detective (Eriq La Salle) to recount his story.

Williams is playing Sy, a one-hour photo lab tech who has become obsessed with the Yorkins, a family who often drop their rolls of film off at his location in the Sav-Mart. Sy has taken to running off copies of their prints for himself, and he fantasizes about being a member of their family.

With this character, Williams is capping a fascinating year in which he has discarded his Patch Adams happy-time image for some major creeps. After being the only thing worth watching in Death To Smoochy, Danny DeVito’s lousy take on children’s TV shows, where William played an obscenity blurting egomaniac, he followed with Insomnia, where he became an intellectual, frighteningly quiet killer. Now comes Sy, the freakiest character Williams has ever played.

Williams combines with masterful work form writer-director Mark Romanek to deliver a story of incredible loneliness and unnerving madness. Sy’s descent into psychotic behavior is not fun to watch. I could understand people not liking the film simply for how lousy it is likely to make them feel. It’s my belief that the filmmakers, for the most part, have achieved their goal in portraying the horror and dangers of unwanted isolation.

Through a series of narrations, Sy talks of the power of photographs. How they freeze a moment in time and act as proof that we have existed. The family to which he has grown unnaturally attached looks ideal and perfect in their photographs, but Sy soon comes to discover that things are not perfect in the Yorkin household. He then degenerates from Sy the Photo Guy to scary stalker.

The movie works best when it doesn’t strain to explain Sy’s depravities. There are moments, especially a well-acted but unnecessary Sy confessional near the film’s end, that result in overdrive. The subtleties of the Williams performance, the way he lovingly caresses photographs, his memorizing of the Yorkin’s address, are telling enough. No need to have everything written on the wall. We can pretty much guess the type of lifelong horrors Sy may have endured to get to his sorry state.

While the primary reason to see this film is Williams, the supporting performances are first rate. Connie Nielsen, likable but underused star of Gladiator and The Devil’s Advocate, brings striking realism to Nina Yorkin, a wife and mother unwilling to acknowledge that things are going very wrong in her household. Gary Cole continues his run as one of the industry’s best supporting actors with his portrayal of Sy’s unsympathetic, by-the-numbers boss.

It says a lot that every moment Williams occupies onscreen is filled with unbelievable tension. The performance could be described as understated, but that word seems to diminish the power of his work in the film. Because we are so used to Williams bounding about with a big smile on his face, it is unsettling to see his persona disappear into this sad character. You might find yourself in the strange position of missing Robin Williams as you are watching him.

Surely, Williams will be returning to happier fare in the future—he can’t expect to finish his career bumming everybody out. This year has been a strong indicator that Williams has much more to offer than streaming one liners and red rubber noses. In films like One Hour Photo, he’s a masterful bad guy.