by TOM NIXON
Robin Williams is best known for his comedic roles in such family films as Jumanji, Hook and Mrs. Doubtfire, but he remains most affecting as that guy from down the road who seems a little bit weird and lonely, but nice enough, until it turns out he’s been having sex with the corpses in his basement. I suspect this is partially because of those films rather than in spite of them; a juxtaposition of mental sickness onto the familiar, a man who’s been watched and loved by kids all over the world for years now. There’s an element of truth to Williams’ creepiness which transcends his character – seeing him hunched over photos of a family he’s stalking, a parent can’t help but feel unease at the thought of a son or daughter laughing at Flubber (assuming, God forbid, any kids actually liked that film).
It’s largely his portrayal of Sy “the photo guy” Parrish which lifts this icy, quiet chiller a little way above typical genre fare, despite it being firmly within his comfort zone. Long time employee of a photo printing lab and seemingly defined by that fact, his story serves as a police interview framed by scenes set in the station, with a childlike voiceover reflecting philosophically from the outset on the wonder that is photography. We’re soon to realize he places special significance upon the photo; not just the fact that it captures a moment and “stops time”, but that it implies appreciation for that moment in the first place. A desire to preserve, of which he has presumably never been the object; unloved, almost a ghost, he becomes obsessed with a young family whose photos he regularly prints. Middle class with a capital M, the Yorkins are the “perfect” family complete with photos of such natural joy that, frankly, no real life family could hold a candle to them. The mother Nina likes pretentious novels, the son Jake likes anime collection figures. Father/husband Will works hard for a good salary. They all shop in SavMart.
The quietly minimalistic score becomes increasingly unsettled as Sy goes down the usual stalker avenues. He plasters his wall with their photos, fantasizes about being a part of the family (“uncle Sy”), and “happens” across them in the walks of everyday life. He throws out increasingly friendly comments as if testing the water, and they’re received with fond yet awkward pity. In an overly contrived scene the young boy Jake asks his mother sympathetically why Sy has no friends. The spin here is that Sy’s obsession isn’t about the attractive Nina Yorkin as you might expect, in fact it doesn’t seem even to be specifically about the Yorkin family – it’s the ideal of the happy family which entices Sy, the thought of one day being part of such photogenic joy. At one point he sits on his couch alone watching that scene from the brilliant Simpsons episode “Cape Feare” where Homer opens a death threat, screams and then relievedly realizes it’s for Bart. A little too cute maybe (though not half as cute as Sy’s godawful shout of “got the picture?!” later on), but it works precisely because that scene is so familiar, so familial, yet it’s satirizing exactly the kind of act Sy seems capable of doing. Most of the other scenes are less effective, not through any obvious flaws but because they lack ambition, happy to tread in the footprints of previous similar works.
When Sy is by himself the colors often do the talking. He’s frequently alone in icy white rooms with photos in hand, loneliness accentuated. More interesting is the way he is often tinged a shade of green or red, externalizing first the isolation and pain which prevents him from becoming photographable, then later his rage at discovering that Will Yorkin doesn’t deserve to be in the photos either. He’s cheating on his wife with a co-worker, he isn’t grateful for the beautiful house, wife and child that Sy aches to have, and this makes Sy so furious that he scratches the man’s face off all the photos, and hunts him down. It’s too much for Sy to bear, to find that this seemingly perfect suburban family is in fact decaying before his eyes.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is the way Sy’s character transforms at this point from pitiful villain to almost likable anti-hero, as we almost (not quite) enjoy a scene in which he humiliates Will in order to, in his misguided way, protect the man’s wife and son. We feel like supporting him because, creepy as he is, Sy is more fatherly towards Jake than the real father ever is. It’s less chilling by this point, true, but it’s also so unexpected that it ultimately feels richer. When after Sy’s arrest Will returns home and hugs his child, we know that Sy has successfully taught him a lesson, effectively sacrificing himself to save the purity of the nuclear family he so covets. Sy’s motivation is fully revealed in his final words to the police officer; he was abused and neglected as a child, as well as photographed in ways he wanted to forget. He saw himself in neglected son Jake, and was visualizing his victim as his own father. This comes out through an emotional outburst, weightier than a cold explanation would’ve been, but nonetheless not half as shocking as it’s supposed to be.
Competently done, the problem throughout One Hour Photo is that we’ve been watching guys like Sy Parrish since the days of Norman Bates, and being so steeped in genre is always going to limit a film’s originality and staying power. Whilst some of the details get subverted and the cinematography is meticulous, the overarching narrative is the same, and so there’s no distinct voice to leave a lasting impression. When a film about a stalker feels like your favorite old sock you know it hasn’t really succeeded, even though it’s still cozy enough to enjoy. The sort of film that’s very rentable, but little more than that.