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To call Robin Williams a national treasure is to still come up short on the incredible contribution to entertainment he provided throughout his decades of work in television, film, stand-up and more. Known primarily for his lighting-fast comedy and irreverent but often deeply satirical examination of the human condition, he was also favored as a dramatic actor, earning acclaim for many stellar performances that were anything but funny. Perhaps none though have been as delightfully disturbing as his role in 2002’s One Hour Photo, a performance that remains his darkest.
Ironically though, Seymour “Sy” Parrish (Williams) is a pale, nearly invisible man for all intents and purposes, who works as a film developer at a franchise SavMart Store, tirelessly ensuring the best quality products his machines can produce. In so doing, he has become obsessed with a young family who regularly drop off film, usually by the attractive wife, a working mother named Nina (Connie Nielsen). Sy takes extreme care to deliver to her the best prints he can, understanding the value of the memories they represent but also for far more personal reasons. In the process, as time passes, he comes to feel a bond with these people, a sense of inclusion to their history, a member of the family. All of these exist and flourish in his head.
Sy fantasizes about his part in their lives, and for a long period, makes secret duplicates of all their photos and in his home, arranges them on a wall to feel closer to Nina, Will (Michael Vartan), and their young son Jake (Dylan Smith), a boy who already has a sense that the man behind the counter is a little lonely. But things fall apart on one harsh day when Sy’s boss Bill (Gary Cole), fires him unexpectedly after discovering the discrepancies in the paid and unpaid prints. To further exacerbate this blow, Sy also finds in a set of photos to be developed–dropped off by Will–that the idyllic father is having an affair with a younger woman.
With great consideration, Sy’s final act in the store is slipping one of these images into a set Nina will be picking up. Curious as to what will happen, he waits for her outside the building, viewing her through a camera lens, then driving behind her. That is until her car suddenly jerks to one side and slams to a halt. She has seen the picture and it marks the start of a devastating collision of painful truths for a broken couple mixed with a sociopath with his own designs for retribution.
Directed by Mark Romanek (who also wrote the screenplay), One Hour Photo is a startling visual and narratively compelling film that is anything but comfortable. It is an uneasy experience that is less about physical violence and more about bracing mental anguish, a bright, exposing light on a dark, disillusioned man. While Romanek paints an intriguing and often haunting vision through the eyes of this challenging character, it is Williams who absolutely solidifies him, roping in our empathy while simultaneously repelling us with his caustic behavior. It’s a riveting performance, surely not a surprise from the talented actor, but one so misaligned with our expectations, it’s almost jarring.
The simmering time bomb character is well-established in cinema (I recently wrote about one here) and it’s easy to assign that characteristic to Sy, as he clearly defines that trait. Yet, Williams does something more with this one hour film developer, most assuredly based on those expectations. His comedy is volcanic and his drama’s while restrained, are inspired, yet here, he is so utterly wound to a such a tight degree, he has practically imploded on himself.
The world that Sy lives in is unlike the world the rest of us see. This is most especially true in his comfort zone, the SavMart shopping center. Seen through his eyes, the store is a pristine vision of perfect angles and symmetrical colors, a fantasy world of sterility and broad designs. This helps to shape who is for us as well, a man who perhaps fills the emptiness of his life with things he gives greater value. Such is the reason for his connection to Nina and her family.
How he deals with Will’s affair is itself telling of the displaced sense of right and wrong, differing greatly from what most others would surely do. Given the same situation, a trained clerk would keep it to themselves, being another secret learned about their customers. Maybe one might speak to Nina or Will, but what Sy does reveals a deeper dichotomy of the character, his internal fantasy that includes him in their family and the external manipulation he employs that actually keeps him involved.
Nina and Will already know that Sy is a peculiar man, a hurdle they must overcome to get their prints, but they consider him harmless, if they consider him at all. For Sy though, they are a deeply embedded obsession, one he has taken to a level well beyond acceptable. Sitting outside their home, he fantasizes about walking among their rooms, watching football on their television, even using their bathroom (in a disturbing image), all with no one else in the house. It is the pastoral life in which he believes they live that attracts him most. And in his dream, when he is nearly caught, the family doesn’t seem surprised he is there, simply welcoming him into the fold like he’s a friendly uncle.
What Sy eventually does to the family I won’t reveal here. What matters is the performance itself, a masterwork of restraint and quiet revelation that is one of the most complex and frightening characters of the past twenty-five years. Sidestepping straight-up villainy, Williams instead creates a tantalizing enigma, a torturously haunted figure that pulls at our own sense of place, deepening the shadows between the debilitating weight of loneliness and the supposed perfection of a family life. So fragile is that line between them for Sy, when it breaks, and blame falls on Will, he shutters and crumbles into a chasm of pain no one man could possible endure.
One Hour Photo is a serious film that poses serious questions and Williams delivers with a performance that challenges. There is a darkness to Sy that lingers like a scent, a palpable aura of trepidation that makes watching him a nerve-racking experience, but a rewarding one nonetheless. It is a performance to be studied and long remembered.