One Hour Photo (2002) [Review Re-View]
Originally released September 13, 2002:
Do we regularly invite strangers to view the picturesque and personal moments of our life like marriages, celebrations, and maybe even a handful of hastily conceived topless photos? Well we all do every time we drop off a roll of film for development.
Robin Williams continues his 2002 Tour of the Dark Side (Death to Smoochy, Insomnia) as way of Sy, your friendly photo guy working at your local Sav-mart superstore. Sy takes an intense artistic pride in the quality of prints he gives. He knows customers by name and can recite addresses verbatim. One family in particular Sy has become fond of is the Yorkins, mother Nina (Connie Nielsen), father Will (Michael Vartan) and nine-year-old Jake. The Yorkins have been coming to Sav-mart and Sy for over 11 years to have their photos developed. He tells Nina that he almost feels like Uncle Sy to the family. For Sy, the Yorkins are the ideal postcard family with perennially smiling faces and the happiest of birthdays. He fantasizes about sharing holidays with them and even going to the bathroom in their posh home.
Sy is an emotionally suppressed and deeply lonely man caught in his delusions. In one of the eerier moments of the film we see that Sy has an entire wall made up of hundreds of the Yorkin’s personal pictures. When Sy attempts to become closer to the objects of his infatuation that’s when things begin to unravel at a serious pace. The more Sy learns that the Yorkins are not the perfect family he yearns for the more he tries to correct it and at any cost.
One Hour Photo is an impressive film debut by music video maven Mark Romanek (best known for the NIN “Closer” video). Romanek also wrote the darkly unrepentant story as well. One Hour Photo is a delicate voyage into the workings of Sy’s instability with lushly colorful metaphors. Romanek’s color scheme is a lovely treat, with vibrant colors popping out and Sy’s life being dominated by cold, sterilized whites. His direction is chillingly effective.
This may be the first time we can truly say Robin Williams has not merely played a version of Robin Williams in a movie. Sy’s thick glasses and thinning peroxide-like hair coupled with an array of facial pocks allow us to truly forget that the man behind the mask is Mork. His performance is unnerving and engrossing. The supporting cast all work well. Nielsen (Gladiator) is a sympathetic wife even if her hair looks like it was cut with her eyes closed. Vartan (Vaughn on ABC’s wonderful Alias) plays understandably wary of Sy’s friendliness. The great Gary Cole has a small role as Sav-mart’s manager who grows tired of Sy’s outbursts and peculiarities.
One Hour Photo is rife with nervous moments and titters. Williams almost has an uneasy predatory feel to him when left alone with Jake. The greatest achievement the film has is that is depicts the scariest person youll ever see, sans hockey mask, and by the end of the film you actually feel degrees of warmth for this odd duck.
Not everything clicks in Romanek’s dark opus. A late out-of-left-field revelation by Sy feels forced and needlessly tacked on. The Yorkin family photos all appear to be taken by a third party, since the majority of them involve all three of them in frame. The climax to One Hour Photo also feels anything but climactic.
A compellingly creepy outing, One Hour Photo is fine entertainment with beautiful visuals and a haunting score. And maybe, in the end, it really does take an obsessive knife-wielding stalker to make us realize the importance of family.
Nate’s Grade: B
WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER
I miss Robin Williams. I’m sure I’m not alone in this sentiment. I can still recall the visceral recoil I had learning about the news of his suicide in 2014. It’s one of the celebrity deaths that hit me hard, as I think many people have fond memories of their childhood linked to Williams and his litany of cherished comedy hits. As boundlessly hilarious as he was, I never felt he got his due as a dramatic actor. He was a four-time Oscar nominee, starting with 1988’s Good Morning Vietnam and concluding with a win for Best Supporting Actor for 1997’s Good Will Hunting, but I think his famous funny side always overshadowed the plaudits for his drama. Nobody could do what he did when it came to comedy; just being a good-to-great dramatic actor didn’t make him as unique in that field of performers, so I think his efforts were often discounted. Williams is one of several comedians who tried their hand at drama, to be deemed a Serious Actor, like Jim Carrey (The Truman Show, The Majestic) and Adam Sandler (Punch-Drunk Love, Uncut Gems) and Eddie Murphy (Dreamgirls) and Will Ferrell (Stranger than Fiction.) and Bill Murray (Lost in Translation) and Sarah Silverman (I Smile Back) and Steve Coogan (Philomena) and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?). After 2000, Williams had even more dramatic performances than comedic ones, and I termed 2002 his World Tour of Darkness where he co-starred in Death to Smoochy, Insomnia, and One Hour Photo all that same year. Revisiting the stalker thriller One Hour Photo, it’s easy to think of the time gone by, and it’s also easy to further appreciate just what an interesting actor Robin Williams could be no matter the project.
This is an intriguing character study of obsession, trauma, and perversion, but I wish it had even more material to better build upon the excellent unease and tension of Sy Parrish (Williams). We learn pretty effectively how lonely and sad Sy is, enough so that even a perceptive little boy can sense that this older man working for years at the photo department of a Wal-Mart-esque big box store is in need of some happy thoughts. He’s dedicated to his job and his regular customers, and that’s about the extent of his purpose because his happy home is so empty that he resorts to filling it with the personal pictures of the Yorkin family. He dreams about the Yorkins inviting him into their home, accepting him as “Uncle Sy,” and providing a welcomed belonging. This is a story of one man projecting all of his hope and envy onto a family unit that cannot live up to Sy’s unrealistic expectations of Hallmark bliss. Sy narrates early that our pictures are the moments we want to remember, the moments we want to treasure and share. “No one ever takes a photo of something they want to forget,” he intones. It’s a theme that bears even more relevancy in our modern age of curated social media versions of ourselves, presenting the best possible versions for consumption by our friends and family and various Internet strangers.
There was more room to explore with this thematic contrast, the idealized versions of ourselves presented to the outside world and the real versions, often with more insecurity and flaws. Sy takes his simmering anger out mostly on the family patriarch, Will (Michael Vartan), and how he doesn’t appreciate what he has. I think it would have been even more intriguing if each member of the Yorkin clan was somehow failing to live up to Sy’s expectations and how this unraveled his delicate psyche and patience. He develops their photos for years, and the Yorkins seem like the happiest and healthiest family, at least to Sy, a family he’d like to call his own. It would have been more compelling if each family member had their own unique way of falling short. Imagine the mother having a secret drinking problem. Or maybe little Jakob is slouching when it comes to his studies, or he needs to learn how to play baseball better, or he’s bullying some kids. The movie would have extra conflict if Sy was having difficulty with more than one family member and inserted himself to resolve it, but the others skate by as Sy’s contempt is directed solely at the bad dad. There is a narrative reason for this, beyond mere plot convenience, and it relates to the ending reveal that gives the audience the biggest clue about what has driven Sy’s desperation.
I called the final reveal in 2002 to be a bit “forced and needlessly tacked on,” and it’s certainly handled in such a haphazard way that you feel like it’s more sleight than it should be. However, having re-watched the film in 2022, it’s this scene, and especially William’s performance, that clinches the movie for me. Sy is sitting in police custody and it’s this setting that establishes the movie’s question of what did this man do and who did he harm. The obvious culprit would be Will as he’s the one wrecking this family unit with his affair, so it’s a nice surprise when the movie subverts our expectations and it turns out Sy hasn’t killed anyone after all. And the pictures he took of Will and his mistress, naked and trembling as he ordered them to strike poses while he brandished a knife, are simply of ordinary objects and exteriors. Both of these mitigate the danger of our knife-wielding, unstable protagonist. Then Williams delivers a tragic monologue about Sy’s father taking pornographic pictures of him while he was a child. It’s never hinted at before but it’s a final puzzle piece that makes sense, especially his ire for Will. It’s a major reveal but it’s not sensationalized, and Williams’ angry yet weary performance feels absolutely in-character and also devoid of prurient sensationalism. While the movie is structured as a crazy person escalating their crazy and ensnaring others, it’s also a dive into a sad man’s tragic life brought about from a tragic past that made him eager for another family’s illusion.
This was director Mark Romanek’s second movie, though his first since gaining industry-wide acclaim as a premiere 1990s music video director (Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” and Fiona Apple’s “Criminal,” to name a couple). It’s always interesting to me what projects esteemed music video directors decide to tackle for their big picture debuts. Very often they’re tasked with horror movies (Marcus Nispel, Samuel Bayer), as music videos are heavy on atmosphere and visually striking arrangements. Romanek chose to helm his own original screenplay about a sad, scary man at a photo booth who obsessed over another family. It’s a gamble, one that Romanek never was able to repeat. He began as the director for 2010’s The Wolfman before being fired and replaced by Joe Johnston. That same year his last film was released, the exquisitely heartbreaking Never Let Me Go. He hasn’t directed a movie since, returning to music videos, commercials, and TV pilots, and this is a shame.
Twenty years later, one-hour photo stations have also been relegated to the dustbin of history. The majority of Americans use their smartphone as their primary picture-taking device, and digital has overtaken film stock for its value and ease. In that regard, it’s also a time capsule of its own, including the humorous montage of Sy’s regular customers (enjoy a young Jim Rash as an amateur smut photographer). It’s just yet another reminder about the changes over time, and it made me reflect even more upon how many years it’s been since we lost Williams.
One Hour Photo is a good movie, elevated by one of the few Williams performances where he disappears inside the character, but it definitely could have been even greater. It’s solid, sleek, and effectively unnerving, but you can also wish it was a little more. The textured yet streamlined score by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek stands out, as it should considering this is the same dynamic team behind Run Lola Run, Cloud Atlas, and HBO’s Deadwood, all sensational scores. The cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, has worked on three of the last four David Fincher movies. The editor, Jeffrey Ford, has since gone on to edit nine Marvel movies. The art director, Michael Manson, went on to work on Doctor Strange and The Mandalorian TV show. In short, there was a lot of talent here to help usher Romanek’s vision to the screen. One Hour Photo is a tantalizing movie that still entertains, especially watching Williams rock the role of a disturbed loner reaching his nadir. As I said in 2002: “A compellingly creepy outing, One Hour Photo is fine entertainment with beautiful visuals and a haunting score. And maybe, in the end, it really does take an obsessive knife-wielding stalker to make us realize the importance of family.”
Re-View Grade: B
Posted on September 23, 2022, in 2002 Movies, Review Re-View. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.
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