CORRIDOR of NOIR
VOL. 4, No. 9
RON MILLER ONE HOUR PHOTO
A chilling portrait of a lonely, obsessive man
By RON MILLER
In last year's taut thriller "Insomnia," Robin Williams should have erased all doubts anyone might have had about his ability to leave his manic comedy style behind to play dark characters.
In that thriller, Williams played a writer of potboiler mysteries who's also a ruthless killer--one who loves challenging the detective (Al Pacino) who's after him in a deadly game of hide and seek.
But that performance didn't scratch the surface of what Williams really could do with dark characters, like photo shop clerk/technician Sy Parrish in director Mark Romanek's psychologically terrifying "One Hour Photo," one of 2002's best films and already a classic in the genre of film noir.
Sadly, Williams' tightly-controlled, but deftly nuanced performance was overlooked by voters in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences when choosing the nominees for acting awards at the March 23 Oscar showdown. In fact, "One Hour Photo" was denied any nominations, despite its flawless execution and artistry.
Happily, though, "One Hour Photo" is now out on video and DVD via 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. (The DVD is about $28 retail, but widely discounted at around $20). I highly recommend this movie, not only for Williams' searing performance, but also for the issues it deals with in a positive and thoughtful manner not normally found in a picture that's framed as a psychological thriller.
Romanek, who comes to features from the world of music video, gave Williams a radical makeover to play the disturbed, alienated Sy Parrish. His hair has been dyed a reddish-blond and thinned to give the look of oncoming baldness. His wardrobe is from the racks at Walmart that are closest to the dumpster. He wears glasses and walks with the uncertain, tentative gait of someone with painful hemhorroids.
Sy is a man of 40something with no friends or close relatives. To compensate for his empty life, he has disappeared totally into his job. It's a brain-numbing one: Dealing with customers at the counter of a one-hour photo shop in a suburban mall, putting their film in the automatic processing machines and packaging their prints for pickup. He's a banal sort of old-fashioned guy with no real social skills, but he makes the effort to be affable and, no doubt, most people think he's a genial stiff--just another of those harmless camera wonks, living out his boring life in a dead end job.
But Sy has found a way to give his life meaning: He has "adopted" a family that regularly uses the photo shop. By chatting with the wife (Connie Nielsen) when she brings in her film rolls, he learns enough about the family to know it's the one he's always wanted for his own.
Sy's fantasy about the family grows to such an extreme that he's soon making duplicate sets of all their pictures and pasting them up on the otherwise vacant walls of his rather austere apartment. He drives by their house and gets to know all about those parts of their life that are just beyond the range of their camera. Soon, he's even imagining himself in their house when they're gone, enjoying their life as if it were his own. His greatest fear is that they may come home early and catch him there.
What finally turns his fantasy on its ear is his discovery that the husband is cheating on the wife. He can't tolerate this destructive influence on "his" family--and decides to do something about it, a plan of action that plunges him over the edge and costs him his feeble grasp on reality. The harrowing climax also holds some abrupt shocks for viewers prepared to see the sort of thing Martin Scorsese might have done in "Taxi Driver." This is a film that pays homage to the "loner" films of the 1970s, like "Taxi "Driver" and "The Conversation," but refuses to imitate them.
Romanek, who also wrote the screenplay, is clearly suggesting there may be lots of people out there in America who long for the family life that's been denied them for one reason or other. They long for the familiar routines most of us might take for granted--or even find tedious. They crave normality so desperately that their craving pushes them over into abnormal obsession.
Stylistically, this is a brilliant film. Sy's world looks frighteningly well-ordered and clinically sterile. The brooding musical score by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek thrums on your nerve endings. And Williams' thoroughly mesmerizing reading of this character is deeply evocative. You know this is a man you wouldn't give two seconds of your time in real life, yet Williams forces you to understand him, perhaps even appreciate him for his very earnest efforts to bring stability back to the fantasy world he believes is about to collapse on him.
Near the end of the film, Romanek also gives us a stunning look back into Sy's world as he shows us one last photo--a family portrait in which a beaming Sy is being warmly embraced by the other members of his adopted family. One wonders if that's the image he'll carry inside his head for the rest of his pathetic life.
Robin Williams already has collected his Oscar (for "Good Will Hunting"), so I guess we don't need to cry for him over not even being nominated for this more daring performance. But it really is time to recognize that TV's former "Mork" is a sensational actor with an arsenal of skills few suspected he had. To paraphrase Al Jolson, "Maybe we ain't seen nothin' yet!"
©2003 by Ron Miller. The Ron Miller caricature is ©2001 by Jim Hummel. The "One Hour Photo" art is from the DVD version of the movie, ©2002 by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.
Ron Miller is a former nationally syndicated television columnist and the author of "Mystery! A Celebration," the official companion book to PBS' "Mystery!" series. He currently teaches classes in mystery and related topics at Whatcom Community College and Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.
Home About Us Archives Talkback Shopping Mall