“These snapshots are their little stands against the flow of time.” Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) knows something of what he speaks. For some 20 years, he’s been working the Phototek counter down at the SavMart, meticulously calibrating the processor so all the colors on all customers’ pictures turn out just right. Day after day, hour after hour, he turns bits of film into memories, to be gazed on, framed, kept.
But even as Sy seems to admire people who take these “little stands,” he also despises them. Partly, his confusion stems from his own sense of lack, visible in his every shot in Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo. Sy lives a life devoid of hues, his pale orange hair just a shade darker than his sallow skin, his polyester shirts and dreary sans-a-belt slacks blending into his white-off-white apartment. He’s a timid, lonely guy, and his situation is about to become even more dismal. You know this much because the first scene in One Hour Photo puts Sy at the cop station, being photographed and questioned by Detective Van der Zee (Eriq La Salle, whose character is named for the Harlem Renaissance photographer). The rest of the film flashes back to show just how Sy gets to this dire point.
Sy’s journey begins at the photo counter, that is, with his fretful need for unambiguous order. His fascination with images has more to do with their constructedness than what they might reveal. As he says, people don’t take pictures of tragedy, of “something they want to forget”; they take pictures of “the happy moments of [their] lives.” Sy doesn’t take many pictures of his own.
He does, however, take them from others. Not only does he poke through flea market bins in search of snapshots he can pass off as his own relatives, he also takes pictures from work. Specifically, he takes them from the Yorkins (read: “your kin”), whose photos he’s been developing every week since before 9-year-old Jake (Dylan Smith) was born. Every time Nina (Connie Nielsen, finally in a role that exercises her range) drops off a roll of film, Sy develops an extra set of prints, and takes it home for his very own. His tv room wall is covered with the Yorkins’ history, images of Jake, Nina, and Will (Alias‘s Michael Vartan) at their happiest: in the pool, on the slopes, at Christmas, Halloween, and birthday parties. These photographs, pulsing with bright greens, vivid reds, sunshiny yellows, provide Sy with glimpses of what he’s missing. He imagines himself inside the pictures, Uncle Sy, posing all-smiles with Jake, mom, and dad.
This sort of insinuation is surely alarming, and you can guess the stalker plot that’s coming (also alarming, for what it’s worth: whenever Nina and Jake step into the SavMart, he charges off down the aisles alone, so, when asked, she says only, “Oh, he’s around somewhere”). But the film doesn’t pound that point right off. For a while, it’s so wrapped up in Sy’s view that you take this view as a “correct” version of what’s happening. The breaks from his perspective are not so dramatic or singular as A Beautiful Mind‘s big change-up, but such departures sneak up on you. So, when Sy lets himself into the Yorkins’ home, dons Will’s sweatshirt, grabs a beer and starts watching tv with the dog, the film gets you settled with him, and when the doorknob turns, you’re suddenly feeling anxious that he’s going to be found out.
Such moments are clearly manipulative, setting you alongside the odious, deviant character (though, as Sy is only wanting what he believes everyone else has, his “deviance” is premised on his dedication to a mainstream ideal). While this device isn’t new, it works cleverly here, because it’s not only events that signify the workings of Sy’s mind, but the composition of these events — and in many cases, non-events, as threat builds, then dissipates. This attention to composition (visual, but also audio, as Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek’s score is carefully attuned to each shift of shade and frame) speaks to One Hour Photo‘s keen thematic interests. It is, after all, a movie about compositions, the deliberate structuring of environments and relationships: families, communities, and individual psyches.
That Sy pursues his own projections and compositions so doggedly makes him an evident threat (and he finds himself investigated by a police department division called “Threat Management,” not so unlike Sy, concerned with preserving order). Just what he threatens may be less manifest. He wants the family to stay together, to protect the child; and a little scene where he walks him partway home following a soccer game (which his parents do not attend) is unnerving in all sorts of ways, not least Sy’s friendly hand on the boy’s shoulder.
Though he’s fanatical about keeping the Yorkins together, he’s also easily distracted. When Sy discovers that the Yorkins are not so faultless as he expects them to be, based on their idyllic vacation and party photos, he’s peeved and, uh-oh, decides to take action. Here, the plotting gets increasingly awkward: you see a snippet of a fight between Will and Nina (in typically gendered terms: she accuses him of “neglect”; he calls out her material grasping, her desire for a life that looks like “pictures in a magazine,” including outfits by Dolce & Gabbana and Jil Sander; little boy listens from his bedroom). While it seems to come out of nowhere, it also suggests that maybe you’ve been taking Sy’s view a little too seriously to this point.
A convenient collision of occurrences sends Sy into a panic. Just as he discovers infidelity in “his” wholesome family (and his sense of ownership, or entitlement, allows him to feel responsible), his boss, Bill (Gary Cole), learns that Sy has been making extra photos for nine years and fires him. The careful order Sy’s worked so rigorously to maintain slips away. And his decision to restore it is as psychotic as you might expect, his “why-I’m-so-screwed-up” explanation to Van der Zee as formally tidy as the shrink’s summation in Psycho.
But aside from these plot contrivances, and aside from Williams’ continuing campaign to remake himself as the Anti-Patch-Adams (clearly, not a bad ambition), One Hour Photo deftly conveys a certain, and significant, creepiness. And it’s not just standard stalker-cam or plinky piano creepiness. It’s more insidious, premised on Sy’s longing — okay, his rage — for order, modeled on photos from catalogues and magazines, and more directly, on the happy family images that photo counters use to promote their services, images that ask, “Don’t you want these memories to be yours?” (And worse, “If they’re not yours, what’s wrong with you?”)
All these issues come at you in a kind of dense-pack form. And that makes sense. Before coming to film, Romanek worked for years directing some extraordinary music videos (including Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” Madonna’s “Bedtime Story,” Macy Gray’s “I Try,” Lenny Kravitz’s “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” etc.). It’s quite apparent that he and his crew — DP Jeff Cronenweth, Production Designer Tom Foden, and Costume Designer Arianne Phillips — have worked together in the past, as they’ve devised an assortment of cues at once abstract, visceral, and unmistakable. Neatly, ominously, the film composes a bleak vision of Sy’s consumption of and by his culture.