134 – One-Hour Photo

For most of us, dropping off film to the one-hour photolab isn’t a big deal. We drop it off, pick up our little claim ticket, and then go shopping for an hour or so. But for the photo technician, who sees hundreds and hundreds of daily life pictures, each snapshot is a glimpse into another person’s world, whether it’s a birthday party for an eight-year-old boy or softcore porn for a local entrepeneur.

Seymour Parrish (Robin Williams) has been developing photos at the SavMart for many, many years. He’s cheerful and friendly to his customers (and he does consider them to be “his” customers), and he knows his stuff when it comes to the technical aspects of the job. See, Sy’s no mere clerk, although that’s how you and I and most other people see him; he’s a qualified, experienced technician. So much so that he gets into a brief shouting match with the guy who delivers Agfa developing equipment over a minor discrepancy in the machine.

Sy lives alone; he’s middleaged and has no friends or close family. He doesn’t even have a dog. What he does have, though, is the opportunity to live his life through the pictures his customers have taken, from birthday parties to sex games to vacations to any and all events in people’s lives.

There’s one family in particular through which Sy lives vicariously the most often: Nina and Will Yorkin, with son Jake (age 8). Sy’s been developing the Yorkins’ photos since before Jake was born, and he’s been able to watch the boy grow.

This might seem to be a normal obsession, right? At least as normal as obsessions can be, anyway. But Sy, as you may have guessed, is a little different. He has an entire wall in his house devoted to the Yorkin family. Over the past decade or so, whenever he’s developed prints for Mrs. Yorkin, Sy has made a copy for himself. As a result, there are thousands and thousands of photos on the wall from the Yorkin family.

When the store manager (Gary Cole) discovers the discrepancy between the number of prints produced and the number that have been actually paid for, he confronts Sy, and the downward spiral begins. Sy’s obsession with his surrogate family intensifies as he descends even deeper into madness.

But he’s not just a creepy loner, although that’s a big part of his character makeup. Sy feels a certain kinship with the family – at least with Mrs. Yorkin and Jake – and also feels protective of them. So when he comes across some damaging photos, that descent into madness accelerates rapidly.

Is this a good role for Williams? In his recent turn in Insomnia, he was creepy and not at all the hyperkinetic funnyman we all know, and he was very effective at essaying deep emotions. The same holds true here. In fact, I think this is among the best work Williams has ever turned in. He’s mesmerizing as Sy, making him not into an unfeeling monster but rather into an obsessive man with a warped sense of values.

The other actors are well cast, too, especially Gary Cole as his boss and Connie Nielsen as Nina Yorkin. But it’s Williams’s show, and while in olden days he might have turned this into a tour-de-fource, pull-out-the-stops performance, in One Hour Photo Williams takes a very effective subtle approach. He underplays Sy just enough to let the audience know what he’s feeling and what his motivations are without beating them over the head with it.

The story moves along very well, and the film is exceptionally photographed (so to speak). The original music by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek is fantastic and – best of all – appropriate to the movie, which is a rare treat.

One-Hour Photo: ***1/2

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