One Hour Photo

| September 3, 2002

First, a word for the marketing wonks. You’re doing a great disservice by trying to sell this film as American Psycho in FotoMat. Consequently, the vast majority of your young audiences who go expecting a Friday the 13th style bloodbath will be disappointed — in fact, were disappointed at the screening I attended. Make no mistake about it, One Hour Photo is a horror film, but this is true horror — the fear and loathing that exists within a twisted psyche that plays itself out in ways that are destructive, even if the damage left behind is not physical. Whether Seymour “Sy” Parrish (Robin Williams, Insomnia) commits his mayhem with a foot-long hunting knife or just with the real-world aftermath of his actions hardly matters. That he does cause real harm, an echo of the harm done to him, is the point here.
Williams is the center of this film, appearing in nearly every scene, and it’s also one of the most subdued performances he has ever given. He’s not in typical ad lib nutzo land here. If anything, Williams severely underplays Parrish, which is exactly the point. This is the guy who works his hours in a non-descript job, hardly noticed by his customers, rather bland and apparently harmless, actually. He’s a walking non-entity who is highly conscientious, a work ethic that is not only not appreciated by his boss (Gary Cole, The Brady Bunch Movie) but actively discouraged. His life is one of routine but, as quickly becomes apparent, his major routine over most of his eleven years behind the photo counter at SavMart has been making extra prints of the family photos left by Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen, Gladiator) and creating his own family illusions out of them. He wants nothing more than to be Uncle Sy, part of this overly perfect trio, completed by model-handsome Dad Will (Michael Vartan, TV’s “Alias”) and well-behaved, gap-toothed son Jakob (Dylan Smith, in his screen debut). It seems that everything that the Yorkins are, Parrish is not. They live in a very expensive modern house of glass and exotic wood design, surrounded by the latest in modern conveniences, from their 16×9 flat screen HDTV to their stainless steel kitchen. Will is the owner of a trendy and eponymous design firm and Nina is the perfect soccer mom. In contrast, Parrish lives far downtown (“Quite a drive,” as Nina notes) in a fourth-floor walk-up in a dumpy and non-descript security building. He eats dinner, alone, in the same tacky diner every day, plays couch potato in front of his tiny, fuzzy old color set or shares his cramped breakfast table with the dismal black and white. When he isn’t at home, he’s behind the photo counter in the far-too-brightly lit, garishly hued SavMart, his entire existence centering around those moments when any or all of the Yorkins are in the store. It’s Parrish’s obsession that leads him to recognize another customer, and so dig into the bottom of Something With Which He Should Not Be Concerned, therefrom causing our story to spiral into an ever tauter web of deception, threats and psychic violence. As bland as he appears on the surface, Parrish is dangerous because he cannot separate his delusions from reality, and the Yorkins are oblivious to it all until nearly the very end.
The film takes its time to unfold in small but telling details. Parrish’s descriptive voiceovers about his business are wonderful. He delineates the typical customers, from the woman who only photographs her cats (Marion Calvert, Monkey Love) to the amateur pornographer (Jim Rash, Simone) and everyone in between, and we recognize every person he mentions, because we’ve either been them or known them. Also, since working the photo counter seems to be the only thing he knows, the only act that defines his life, he takes great pride in boasting about his meticulous attention to the quality of prints he provides, in forty minutes or less. This leads to a moment in which the potential violence of Parrish is revealed as he goes off on a photo tech, who just doesn’t appreciate the significance of a 0.3% shift in the cyan values in the equipment. To the tech, it’s a non-issue. To Parrish, it’s practically a life-or-death matter.
Befitting the photographic theme, the cinematography and design of the film are nothing less than phenomenal. I haven’t seen an American film that uses color to such great effect short of the works of David Lynch, thanks to cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and production designer Tom Foden. The Yorkin’s world is full of warm, friendly earth tones, while SavMart and the photo counter are a riot of primary colors kept segregated by their respective shelves. Parrish’s world, in contrast, is an almost monochromatic island of cool blues, and this character frequently appears in frames or mirrors. For the true cinematography geeks in the audience — Parrish’s first entrance to his apartment actually appears in an “impossible” mirror shot. Yes, that’s a mirror we’re looking at. Straight on. So, where’d the camera and crew go? On an equally subtle level, there are several fake-out POV shots that aren’t actually POVs at all, a device that just serves on the pan to emphasize Parrish’s alienation from his own life. Those are the kind of details that ninety percent of audiences won’t even notice, but they all work together to build the mood and the characters without resorting to flat-out statements.
This is a film that mostly knows how to show us without telling us, credit that to the script by director Mark Romanek, who has previously helmed music videos for Madonna, R.E.M. and Nine Inch Nails. He knows the value of leaving out “stuff the audience knows.” For example, when police detective James Van Der Zee (Eriq La Salle, TV’s “E.R.”) arrives to tell Nina what we, the audience, already know, we don’t have to sit through his explanation. Likewise, when a recently unemployed Parrish drops by his old job to drop off some film, his boss’s one-word expletive reaction to said developed photos tells us everything we need to know about who they show and why they’re so threatening. Ultimately, when Williams explains his behavior to Van Der Zee, he does so obliquely. Slower audience members will wonder who the hell he’s talking about. The rest of us get it without the silver platter beneath it, and also figure out the identity of the guilty party, thanks to an earlier expedition to a flea market and its disingenuous result. The high point of this understatement comes when the sudden swerve of an SUV shows us exactly what’s just happened inside, even though we’ve never explicitly seen the component pieces leading up to that moment.
The nice thing about this movie is that I can toss off huge giveaways while revealing nothing, and everything builds to a twist ending that M. Knight Shamalyan only wishes he could pull off. Yes, it’s an ending we’re not expecting, but when it comes, it makes perfect sense and is true to the characters. In technical lingo, it’s what’s known as an “earned ending” that pays off the premise before it. Of course Parrish does what he does, despite the blatant hints that his intent is something else. If you’ve been paying attention, your reaction won’t be “Huh?” It’ll be, “Well, duh.” And, by the final fade-out, you’ll find it hard to think of this bland man behind the photo counter as a soulless monster, despite his actions.
Still, you will be considering making the switch to digital photography after seeing One Hour Photo. As one widely-blurbed critic pointed out, this movie does for snapshots what Psycho did for showers, and it’s true. By the end, you’ll be utterly disinclined to trust your family piccys to anywhere but your own home darkroom.

About the Author:

Jon Bastian Jon is a playwright and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles, where he has been currently appearing in Flash Theater LA when not working for Cesar Millan to keep his dogs rolling in kibble.
Filed in: Video and DVD

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