One Hour Photo
In Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo, Robin Williams plays Sy Parrish, a photo clerk at a giant discount department store. Sy stands behind his counter with a tight little smile, taking an almost prissy pride in his work. At the same time, though nobody seems to notice, Sy also takes an inordinate interest in his customers, the Yorkins—Will (Michael Vartan), Nina (Connie Nielsen), and their 9-year-old son Jake (Dylan Smith). He’s interested in them, in fact, to the point that he papers the wall of his sparse little apartment with extra copies of the photos he processes for them. He even fantasizes himself as their “Uncle Sy,” joining in on their picnics, holidays, and just good times around the house. But the Yorkins’ home life is in fact less than perfect. We see this before Sy does, but when he finally notices the cracks in the facade of his perfect family, his cozy little fantasy world begins to implode, and he reacts with an unexpected fierceness.
Romanek, who comes to feature films from a career in music videos, has hit on an intriguing premise, and he gives it a striking visual treatment. He also gets a distinctly subdued performance from Robin Williams—so subdued, in fact, that it’s a little too creepy. Sy is so bottled up and tightly wound that he practically wears a neon sign flashing “weirdo” over his close-cropped, thinning blonde head. Seeing Robin Williams this clenched and sinister is so disconcerting that it’s hard to believe it doesn’t look just as alarming to the other characters in the film.
One Hour Photo takes place entirely in the world of Mark Romanek’s visual style. The SavMart store where Sy works is as immaculately groomed as anything in a commercial; the sight of a stuffed animal lying on the floor is as jarring as a cow-pie on a wedding cake. The photos that Sy processes for the Yorkins are all flawlessly lit, impeccably composed, perfectly in focus. Not only that, but even the most intimate of them include the whole family. I couldn’t help wondering: who took these pictures? Did the Yorkins always snag a passing stranger, and was that stranger always a great photographer?
Romanek packs his script with bizarre behavior from Sy that inexplicably arouses no suspicion. For starters, Sy “happens” to meet Nina Yorkin at the local mall and she thinks nothing of it. Around the store, he compliments Will Yorkin both on his beautiful family and on his nice house, and Will just shrugs it off. Strangest of all, Sy shows up at young Jake’s soccer practice with a present that Jake has the presence of mind to refuse—but without mentioning Sy’s behavior to either of his parents.
There are some pretty long-shot coincidences, too. As the movie approaches its crisis, the plot hinges on Sy recognizing one of his customers, then picking her face out of one of the hundreds of photos that cover his wall, zipping right to it like a homing pigeon. At another key moment, Sy does something that at last gets the attention of the police—but it only seems to be there because Romanek thinks it’s time to bring the cops into the mix.
With all its plot holes and inconsistencies, though, One Hour Photo holds the interest, and it does weave a modest spell. Romanek has a real flair for picturization; his images are undeniably striking, even if he can’t resist drawing our attention to how striking they are. At the same time, his plotting isn’t always what we expect. When Sy takes retribution against the people he blames for disrupting his perfect family, we see it coming—after all, Romanek opens on Sy’s police interview, then tells his story in flashback—but the scene still takes us by surprise; it’s less violent yet more disturbing than we thought it would be.
One of the oddest things about this odd little film is that its chief shortcoming is at the same time its greatest asset: that vacuum-bottle atmosphere, the feeling that the universe where it takes place contains not one atom more than Mark Romanek needs to tell his strange little story.