(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Sy “The Photo Guy” Parrish (Robin Williams) has lovingly developed photos for the Yorkin family since their son was a baby. But as the Yorkins’ lives become fuller, Sy’s only seems lonelier, until he eventually believes he’s part of their family. When “Uncle” Sy’s picture-perfect fantasy collides with an ugly dose of reality, what happens next “has the spine-tingling elements of the best psychological thrillers” (The New York Observer).
– From DVD Production Notes
In 2002 Robin Williams starred in what I called his “dark trilogy”: Death To Smoochy, Insomnia and One Hour Photo. Out of the three I’d say One Hour Photo overshadows the others. Williams completely vanished into his role, leaving his usual warmth and extroversion at home. He simply was someone else, and he made the transformation seem effortless.
Re-watching this film made me realize it is a little-seen masterpiece. It’s done so well I find it hard to believe it was Mark Romanek’s mainstream debut (his first indie, Static, debuted in 1986). He also wrote the damn thing. Romanek had been around for nearly twenty years, better known for his fastidious and visually innovative music videos. His experience showed and translated well. In Photo his controlled aesthetic is strikingly impressive, like watching the inner workings of a pocket watch. Everything in the frame has a purpose.
Case in point: Sy’s world is immaculate and absurdly ordered, from the shelves in his workplace to his spartan surroundings at home.
This visually represents how Sy is a part of a space but never quite belongs. He is truly one of those men Elizabeth Wurtzel described as one of those “unmarriable misfits among the male of the species: they are everywhere, unavoidable and unnoticeable at once.” You may feel sorry for him, but you’re constantly questioning the “whys” of his situation, because something is terribly amiss.
Sy becomes a complex character because of the way Romanek builds his relationship with the audience. We pity and sympathize with him because the film is (almost) strictly from his perspective. This doesn’t let up as he unravels, and we feel the same horror he does. At one point we are even let into his nightmares.
(For the record, these images come up immediately if you Google or Tumblr search “robin williams one hour photo.”)
At the very least a viewer gets where Sy is coming from, enough to think he’s incomplete- a lonely person, perhaps completely misunderstood and passed over in life. But the film has other plans. It turns out that Sy is as pathetic as he vengeful. Williams plays this in a very straight-forward, seemingly harmless, “oh, it’s okay” manner, treating us to situations and thought processes that would make anyone’s skin crawl.
By the end of the film Sy becomes an unstoppable lost cause. His relationship with the Yorkin family may be a figment of his imagination but he pushes it into a reality. What happens after that becomes particularly horrifying. It’s also one of the hardest things Sy has ever forced himself (or others) to do. Still, he’s beyond convincing when it’s time to act, even though it’s pushing him to the brink.
This leads to one of the strangest, creepiest film climaxes I’ve ever seen. Every frame of it.
A large part of Photo‘s magic is its unusual casting. This doesn’t only refer to Williams, but the supporting players. Gary Cole, who I knew from The Brady Bunch Movie (1995) and Office Space (1999) is playing it straight as Sy’s antagonistic boss. There are also appearances from two actors who were virtually unknown at the time: Jim Rash (as “Amateur Photo Guy”) and Clark Gregg (as Det. Paul Outerbridge), now known for their work on Community (2009 – ongoing) and in The Avengers (2012), respectively.
Yet here they are, each hardly having any lines or relevance to the story:
These men are known for being funny, yet they’re not aiming to be. Then there’s Williams, who couldn’t draw a laugh as Sy if he tried. The rest of the cast- Michael Vartan, Connie Nielsen, Erin Daniels, Eriq La Salle- are understated and subtle, playing just the right amount of friendliness, discomfort and terror to fill in the lines.
As for Romanek, he did a masterful job creating an ambiguous portrait of Sy without passing any judgment (I suppose it has similarities to my take on Punch-Drunk Love). The last shot of the film says it all, and man… it’s a doozy, one of the most poignant of its kind.
Nearly eleven years have passed and he has directed only one other film, an adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (2010). I’ve heard about him being attached to projects before dropping out, usually due to “creative differences.” All I know is that when he’s involved in something he knows what he wants and rarely compromises. It seems that studios or financiers aren’t willing to give him full control.
For my part I would love to see him do more, regardless. When the powers that be don’t let him… it’s a shame. To borrow from his own film:
With all the reboots and remakes out there today, more Mark Romanek would be a breath of fresh air, or at least more interesting than Transformers 4.