One Hour Photo

One Hour Photo

USA, 2002. Rated R. 98 minutes.

Cast: Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Gary Cole, Dylan Smith, Eriq La Salle, Erin Daniels, Paul Hansen Kim, Clark Gregg, Nick Searcy
Writer: Mark Romanek
Music: Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek
Cinematographer: Jeff Cronenweth
Producers: Pamela Koffler, Christine Vachon, Stan Wlodkowski
Director: Mark Romanek


Grade: B+ Review by Carlo Cavagna

Never the most popular in school or the most athletic, unable to get dates and passed over at work, they lurk on the edge of our society, marginalized. Their escape is an inner fantasy world where they are more attractive and more loved. Back in the real world, they dream of becoming the center of attention or getting their revenge. They are always the quiet ones whom nobody ever suspects. They are the stalkers. They are the men who eventually become the serial killers and sex offenders. In the words of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, "They covet." They covet that which they do not have…that which they believe is being unfairly denied to them.

Seymour Parris (Robin Williams), or "Sy," is one such man. He works at the One Hour Photo lab at a Save-Mart in the San Fernando Valley. Sy has developed an unnatural fixation on the Yorkins, a nuclear family that has been bringing their rolls of film to him for a decade. Being privy to their most intimate moments and having no family life of his own, Sy has come to believe that he is one of the Yorkins. Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen of Gladiator, unrecognizable in shortish black hair) and nine-year-old Jake (Dylan Smith) know Sy's name and exchange pleasantries with him, unaware that they are feeding his delusion. Will Yorkin (Michael Vartan of TV's Alias), on the other hand, has no idea who Sy is.

As Sy himself observes, people only take pictures of happy moments. Nobody ever takes a picture of something they want to forget. Sy should know more than anyone that the image of a healthy nuclear family presented by the Yorkin's photos may be a deceiving façade, yet when he learns that their marriage is in trouble, he cannot accept it. The Yorkins are his family--how dare they have problems? At the same time, store manager Bill Owens (Gary Cole of Office Space) is beginning to catch on that all is not right with his employee.Sy snaps a photo of himself

Written and directed by first-timer Mark Romanek, One Hour Photo is the third in the Evil Robin Williams Trilogy of 2002, which has included Death to Smoochy and Insomnia. One Hour Photo is easily the best of the three.

One Hour Photo is a purely psychological film--a character study, not a plot-driven thriller or moral harangue. Like the weird loner movies of the 1970s (The Conversation, Taxi Driver), One Hour Photo goes deep into the mind of a troubled person, taking the time to understand him from the inside out. Williams winds up an ambiguous character, obviously sick and demented, but also a human being for whom the audience can feel understanding, if not sympathy. To achieve this effect, Romanek meticulously paces his revelations about Sy. Too much too soon would put the audience off and keep it at arm's length. Too much too late would make the story seem forced, coerced into the chosen direction.

Robin Williams is marvelous, fully earning here the Academy Award he won against a weak field in 1997 for Good Will Hunting. He has played other non-comic roles simply by reigning in his boisterous persona. While that tack has been effective occasionally, more often Williams' dramatic roles work in the negative. He simply sheds traits of his comic persona until he has a reasonable approximation of how his character behaves. He acts unnaturally reserved, and the performance doesn't convey anything other than Robin Williams acting unnaturally reserved. Williams' work in One Hour Photo is much better than that. He has forgotten himself completely and used only the character as a reference point. It is a tightly controlled and nuanced performance, empathetic and frightening at the same time. Has it ever been possible to say that Williams has truly inhabited a character? It is now.

Romanek's direction is similarly controlled. He is content simply to observe, using Jeff Cronenweth's camera as a relatively static window through which to observe Sy. Instead of flourishes, Romanek uses sound, light, and set decoration to build mood. The fluorescent lights of the Save-Mart harshly illuminate the sterile and bare environment that Sy inhabits. Sy's home is even more spartan, underscoring how little he lives his own life. Romanek also uses discordant roars of sound that suddenly go silent, recalling the sound editing in Session 9. These elements create a world that looks normal on the exterior and feels unsettled underneath.

The disappointment of One Hour Photo is that it settles for too little. Perhaps hypothesizing that audiences do not want to see lovable Williams play a completely horrific, irredeemable person, or perhaps afraid that "pathetic" and "horrifying" cannot easily co-exist in general, Romanek appears to toe the edge he should be leaping over at full speed. For example, in one sequence, Sy dreams of entering the Yorkins' home while they're gone and making himself comfortable, but doesn't actually do it. Instead of the fury of Taxi Driver, Romanek serves up a confused, anti-climactic resolution. One Hour Photo could and should have reached for more, and then it would have been a masterpiece instead of "just" a very good film.

Review © August 2002 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2002 Twentieth Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

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