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One Hour Photo   B

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Mark Romanek
Writer: Mark Romanek
Cast: Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Gary Cole, Dylan Smith, Eriq LaSalle, Erin Daniels.

Review by Rob Vaux

One Hour Photo is sneakier than you might expect. The showy performance by Robin Williams -- going against comedic type -- can't disguise the similarities to some very old and clichéd suspense flicks. Fatal Attraction had a memorable lead performance too, and yet it's still little more than a lurid potboiler. The framework for One Hour Photo suggests another weary knock-off of Attraction's domestic psychopath routine. Its strengths come when it defies those conventions, playing off our expectations to deliver a very unsettling portrait of its principal character. It never quite escapes the stereotypes, but it also never contents itself with business as usual.

Williams indeed holds the lynchpin of the film as weirdo du jour Sy Parrish, aka "Sy the Photo Guy," who works at the local retail warehouse developing people's pictures. He wears clothing as beige as his surroundings, and lives in an apartment unadorned by even the simplest accoutrements... save for a single wall festooned with duplicated pictures of his favorite clients. The Yorkins -- Will (Michael Vartan), Nina (Connie Nielsen), and nine-year-old Jake (Dylan Smith) -- seem to live a life out of the Sharper Image catalog, and their regular photo drop-offs give the unstable developer a window into their idyllic world. His desperate attachment to them remains hidden behind his fixed smile, but we can sense it in his eagerness to please, his intimate knowledge of private details, his conversations with them that go on a little too long. Then the cracks appear, and Sy begins catching sight of the unhappiness between the birthdays and the wedding anniversaries. With guys like him, it's never a good idea to muck with preconceptions.

Most films of this type use the psychopath as the foil, positing the drama from the standpoint of his hapless targets. This time, the situation is reversed. Sy is the focus of our attention from the first frame onward, and One Hour Photo ultimately emerges as more of a character study than a sturm und drang thriller. Granted, it holds many thriller elements, and they don't do the film much credit. At times, Sy seems to exist in order to punish the Yorkins for their sins: a hackneyed conceit borne out by the unsettling way he plays on our nerves. The trappings of his florescent-lit lifestyle speak too readily of pop psychology, and by the time he swipes a hunting knife from the store, we're ready to call up Glenn Close and boil us some bunnies. But director Mark Romanek refuses to surrender to the easy shocks. Rather, he notes how quietly peripheral figures can insinuate themselves into our lives, how easily they can rip aside our security. The plot twists never become preposterous: every step Sy takes in his inevitable descent is eerily plausible and simple to achieve, yet the repercussions are devastating. Even the finale, which could have easily spun out of control, takes us in an unexpected direction, suggesting that you need not inflict direct harm in order to destroy someone.

Furthermore, Romanek insists on showing Sy's world not with leering judgement, but a strange sort of compassion. The man lives like a bug under a microscope, the homogenized abyss of retail hell slowly destroying his soul. His deluded rationalization about his position ("I consider it an important job," he insists) hides post-millennial despair, the wail of an everyman rendered invisible by corporate assimilation. Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth contrasts the pasty, Orwellian sickness of Sy's life with the technicolor brilliance of the Yorkins... and yet their fashion magazine existence is presented as no less hollow, only more brightly colored. Sy wishes to swap one empty life for another, unable to conceive of a world outside of prepackaged banality. Indeed, the Yorkins themselves never seem very compelling, despite decent turns from Nielsen et al. It's Sy who holds our attention, drawing us to the empty void behind his nerdy glasses.

Williams delivers a powerful yet restrained performance that does credit to his acting ability, and Romanek complements his lead by providing a genuine rationale for Sy's insanity while respecting the audience enough to offer it implicitly, rather than pounding us on the head. That is where One Hour Photo finds its real power. For all his creepiness, his menace, his dangerous obsessions, Sy is a figure of genuine pity. He retains our sympathies, even while he's making our skin crawl. In that sense, he's very much like another lonely man -- Norman Bates -- who, after all, just wanted to have a chat with a pretty girl. One Hour Photo made a wise choice by emulating that example.

Review published 09.02.2002.

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