Grim Picture

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 30, 2002

Imagine that someone is watching you. He's intimately familiar with your family, with the particular dynamics of love and hate and fear that occur only behind your closed doors; you have no secrets from him. He's insinuating himself more deeply into your life, and he's come to have profound feelings about you.

Now here's the scary part: It's Robin Williams.


That's "One Hour Photo," which develops into something extremely queasy. This is good, not bad. Queasy is harder than scary, subtler than creepy, and more powerful than smarmy. It's the one that lingers for days, eroding your confidence in your ability to cope, wrecking your sleep, making you snap at loved ones. I love it when that happens.

For Williams it's a tour de geek: He plays one of those apparently anonymous men bathed in the perpetual glow of a retail store's fluorescents, so helpful in their little uniforms behind their little counters, an essay in banality written in unprepossessing flesh.

Seymour "Sy" Parrish: To know him is to ignore him. Does he exist? Is there a man behind the blue apron and the "Sy" nametag? Sy runs the one-hour photo department at Valuebuy – or perhaps it's Sav-A-Lot or Market-R-Us or Goods-A-Plenty.

In fact, he is the department. He's clean, obedient, organized, on time and friendly. He smiles. He cares. He knows his customers by name. He cares about his customers. He loves his customers. Isn't it wonderful?

No, not actually. Behind it all, Sy is the poster boy for inappropriate emotional attachment. Under that retail blandness and apparent love lurks the heart and soul of a twisted puppy. Sy – for reasons that become heartbreakingly vivid at movie's end – has given himself over to the worship of an ideal family: a handsome, smiling husband, successful and capable; his beautiful and kind wife, who always remembers Sy's name; and their spunky li'l kid. He knows these people through two media: their snapshots and his fantasies.

Too bad that the Yorkin family is real, and that their pathetic reality – alcoholism, promiscuous consumerism, infidelity, career difficulties, child neglect bordering on abuse – can never live up to the fabled model that floats so majestically in Sy's mind. So of course, they must be punished.

What a spooky conceit. It gets at the evil power of the ideal, and the fact that no one, not even the fabulous Yorkins, can live up to it. And it gets at the insidious ways in which fantasy as a substitute for life works: Sy invests totally in his notions of the Yorkins as perfect, based on his habit of duplicating every shot they've had him develop, and now those dupes paper a whole wall of his lonely-guy apartment. So when photographic evidence emerges that Will Yorkin (Michael Vartan) is cheating on the fabulous Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen) and ignoring poor li'l Jake Yorkin (Dylan Smith), Sy goes ballistic. His carefully modulated life begins to teeter out of control.

The movie is cast as a madman's confession. Sy, so meek and polite, sits in the police interrogation room while a detective quietly played by Eriq La Salle asks probing questions, and we sink back through Sy's memory, illuminated by the foreknowledge that something terrible has happened.

Williams has a special gift for this sort of character. He conveys ever so subtly what we have suspected of this gentleman since the days of Mork: Under the id-driven scream of consciousness of that crazy stand-up and talk show persona, there's a delicate, shy, meek little man. Oh, he's still crazy as a loon, of course, but it's a different kind of crazy. It's the smirky crazy of the man who pays too much attention and who shows too much empathy. Oooh, that's the scary one.

But the brilliance of the film isn't just in Williams's ultra-disturbing performance. It's that the movie has been been extremely thoroughly thought out by writer-director Mark Romanek. This young man appears to be the rare music-video director who has a solid sense of character to go along with his glib visual brilliance. He may have read a book or two. He develops a coherent theory of Sy's pathology: Sy isn't strange just because the movie's better that way. His strangeness has been manufactured by various stresses; he's been machined toward the deviant.

It is, therefore, no accident that he's the one-hour-photo man: He is a man who lives through photography because reality is so disappointing. Even his hobby is snapshots, and his fantasy history, when he shares it, is built around snapshots. At one point he shows Nina a photo of a kindly, matronly figure in a sepia-tinted old print. "My mom," he says to her, eyes all melty with remembered love – and it's clear that he believes it, even though we've seen him buy it for a buck five minutes earlier.

Somewhere in his life, somehow, for some cruel reason, he has inappropriately concluded that the ultimate act is the act of photography. When he acts out, as when he merely sits and dreams, it will be in terms of photography. So the true mystery of "One Hour Photo" is who has made him such a creature, and why? And that is also the movie's most astonishing achievement: It begins by scaring you to death by evoking a monster, and by the end it has seduced you into caring for him.

ONE HOUR PHOTO (R, 98 minutes) Contains intensity and sexual innuendo. At area theaters.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company