After seeing this film you might look at those photo guys behind the counter a little differently. Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) is a very quiet melancholy photo technician who takes enormous pride in his work. What brightens Sy’s day the most is when the Yorkin family–Nina (Connie Nielsen) Will (Michael Vartan) and their nine-year-old son Jake (Dylan Smith)–stop by to have their photos developed. In fact Sy is so obsessively attached to them he copies their photos and eventually stalks them all while innocently imagining he is the Yorkins’ friendly uncle invited over for barbecues and family holidays–and of course to be in every picture. Then his world drastically changes when he discovers a secret about the Yorkins that shatters his perfect image of them. And when his supervisor Bill (Gary Cole) fires him over photos that are unaccounted for Sy goes reeling over the edge. One Hour Photo‘s story peels away much like the skin of an onion–the more layers you uncover the more uncomfortable you get. Still this story keeps you riveted wondering how far Sy will go. The only point that rings false is Sy’s explanation of his craziness. It’s simply not needed. The film would have been just that more disturbing if you never knew why he was that way.
Sy Parrish is the third in the series of dark and psychotic characters Williams has been playing this year. Call it his “blue” period. One performance worked fairly well (Insomnia) and one missed the mark (Death to Smoochy). Yet Williams‘ photo guy is by far the most disturbing of the three and could be Williams‘ best work to date (dramatically at least). You fully expect Sy to be this creepy little guy who goes haywire at some point but what Williams actually does is give us a more complex character study. He’s not really as scary as much as he is haunted and Williams weighs himself down to play him. Like the young Jake played nicely by Smith you just feel incredibly sorry for Sy even when he does really nutty things. Nielsen and Vartan have the sometimes more difficult task of playing an ordinary married couple going through some difficult times while making it look real. It can be hard to pull something like that off effectively and the two actors handle it very well. Cole gets to once again play the jerk supervisor (which he did for comic relief in Office Space). Maybe it’s because he is good at it.
The other star of the film is the camera–in all its various permutations. Sy’s obsessive-compulsive attention to the details of taking pictures developing them properly and then relishing the finished product is meticulously explored by first time writer/director Mark Romanek. The film’s camera goes into the belly of the photo process machine as well as into the mechanics of a 35mm camera and it’s fascinating to follow the journey. The visuals weave well into the twisted mind of the protagonist as if perhaps we are only seeing the world as Sy sees it rather than how it really is. There is the contrast between the warm and cozy environment of the Yorkin house as Sy wanders through it and the pristine order of the discount store where Sy works. Luckily though unlike other independent films where the story is only secondary to the director’s skewed “vision ” Romanek uses the story to guide the visuals in One Hour Photo. Another great indie writer/director is born.