One Hour Photo

I’ve always been weary of those “One Hour Photo” booths and the people who work there. Because they have to quality check each print, the clerks have access to your life. I don’t mind sharing vacation photos with them, but I would never drop of a roll of family snapshots. That would be the same as inviting complete strangers into your home.


One Hour PhotoThat’s the chilling premise of writer-director Mark Romanek’s thriller “One Hour Photo,” featuring an extremely creepy but conservative Robin Williams as Seymour “Sy” Parrish, a photo clerk at the 24-hour discount store SavMart. With his closely cropped blonde, almost Aryan hair, geek glasses and a intensely annoying Milquetoast voice, Williams becomes one of society’s fringe players who want desperately to become something more. Williams digs a pit of despair and loneliness so deep inside Sy that we readily want to embrace him. With a personal life as sterile as the photo developer, Sy likes his job because it provides him the opportunity to escape his dreary existence. Sy lives for the possibility of exchanging more than a customary “come back soon” with his customers.

Sy also lives his life through the snapshots of his customer, including picture-perfect couple Will (Michael Vartan) and Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen) and their son Jake (Dylan Smith). Will and Nina have been bringing Sy their photos since Jake was born, and in a strange, stalker sort of way, he confesses to Nina that he almost feels like “Uncle Sy.”

A strange comment, one that Nina lets slip by, unaware that the nice, quiet and supposedly harmless photo clerk has created a shrine on one of his apartment walls with copies of their photos. Will and Nina are so absorbed in maintaining their “Home and Garden” lifestyle that they disregard Sy as he slowly insinuates himself into their family. What starts off as innocent comments and observations quickly escalates into a frightening journey into the mind of a schizophrenic.

What could have been a pedestrian walk down a familiar road becomes a thrifty, effective thriller. It’s not a great film, but it does feature a great performance by Williams, whose leap to the dark side has given the actor a whole new career. I’ve always enjoyed Williams, both as an actor and comedian, and his work in “One Hour Photo” is remarkable. Williams takes one of those little, invisible people in our lives and brings him to the forefront, creating a dark but still sympathetic character.

When Sy eventually succumbs to his illness, we still feel connected to the character. He’s not a monster, but a complex character, and Williams nails him down to the DNA. He helps us understand Sy’s deterioration and ultimate descent into dementia. We feel sorry for Sy, but we never pity him. The star won’t let us.

The other star of “One Hour Photo” is writer-director Romanek, who makes the leap from music videos to film without dragging out all of the MTV baggage. “One Hour Photo” isn’t a think piece, and you appreciate Romanek the writer for realizing that.

The screenplay is layered with piercing tension, tight dialogue and smart plotting, all realized by a director who recognizes that strong performances and dialogue, and not razzle dazzle, are all you need to make a good film.

Romanek keeps things nice and tight, especially within the frame. His characters are interesting, and have interesting things to say. We want, make that need, to get up close and personal with them. Connie Nielsen convincingly conveys the distractions, disappointments and dreams of a woman who wants it all. Nina is so preoccupied in her pursuit of perfection that she doesn’t realize she already has it.

Michael Vartan is strong as Will, a husband and father who knows his responsibilities and isn’t afraid to make them clear. Dylan Smith avoids precociousness as Jake, the perfect child.

Cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth gives “One Hour Photo” two very distinct looks, and each one serves Romanek’s vision. The garish, flourescent world of Sy is depressing and gloomy. In this light, Sy looks sickly, pale and washed out. The Yorkin home, in real life and on film, is colorful, full of life and hope. In this setting, Sy actually looks healthy. It’s a great cinematic trick that expresses much more than words on a page.

“One Hour Photo” isn’t a big film, which means it doesn’t come with the expensive trappings of a major Hollywood film. It’s very insular, limited to a handful of sets and characters. By trimming off all the fat, all that is left is a lean thriller that gets the job done.

DESSERT
The DVD transfer perfectly preserves the film’s original 1.85:1 widescreen format and slightly skewered, florescent look. Since a lot of the film is set inside a warehouse store, flesh tones are comfortable but not exact. The DVD transfer respects the director’s use of non-direct lighting and presents it with absolutely no visible artifacts or flashing whatsoever. Black and shadows are a little suspect, but they hold up nicely under the conditions presented, and colors for the most part are very realistic with no bleeding or fading. The nature of the beast doesn’t offer much in the way of depth of field, but attention to detail is still impressive. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Soundtrack constantly catches you off guard with it’s unexpected surround effects and eerie musical score. Dialogue mix is especially vivid, while the front sound stage provides a distinctive stereo split. Basses are seldom used for effect, but middle and high ends are extraordinarily potent. Also included is a 2.0 Dolby Digital Stereo track in French dubbed language.

The DVD features a scene-specific, feature-length commentary with both director-writer Mark Romanek and star Robin Williams, who allows the director to steer the conversation. Both participants provide more than enough information to make the audio track worth a listen, and includes both behind-the-scenes tidbits and dissection of the main character. There is also a customary featurette that serves as more of a PR piece than a behind-the-scenes examination of a tricky subject. Director and star also sit for an extended chat with Charlie Rose, and provide a fun and informative look at the film-making process. Williams is extremely animated here, much more so than in the audio commentary. Technical stuff is discussed in a Sundance Channel “Anatomy of a Scene” featurette, an excellent addition to the director/star features. 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment has compiled an excellent collection of extras for what amounts to an art house film, and this fan couldn’t be happier.

ATTENDING RESIDENT: John Larsen



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