As everyone has heard by now, Robin Williams died earlier this week at the age of 63. A comedian first and foremost, the actor broke into Hollywood playing humorous roles in movies like Popeye and Mrs. Doubtfire, but quickly proved his meddle by taking on dramatic parts in such films as Dead Poets Society and What Dreams May Come, even winning an Oscar for his performance in Good Will Hunting. Williams showed time and again that he was a versatile and talented actor, and he even got to prove his chops in the horror genre with a truly creepy performance in One Hour Photo.
One Hour Photo stars Williams as Sy Parrish, a lonely photo-finish technician at a big-box retailer called Sav-Mart who takes his job very seriously, putting the quality of his customers’ photographs before anything else. Sy’s favorite customer is Nina Yorkin (Gladiator’s Connie Nielson), the wife of a yuppie named Will (Michael Vartan from Never Been Kissed) who frequents the store with their son, Jake (Dylan Smith from Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), and brings roll after roll of film to Sy for processing. Sy has been doing the Yorkins’ photos for so long that he has practically watched Jake grow up while developing their pictures, and he has built a dream world in his mind where he is actually a member of the family – Uncle Sy. At first, Sy’s obsession with the Yorkins is relatively harmless, consisting of him simply printing out an extra set of all of their photos to hang on his wall. Soon enough, the lines between reality and Sy’s fantasies are blurred when he sees things in the pictures that crack his image of the perfect Yorkin family. As Sy slips further into his demented world, he sets out to make the Yorkins pay for their perceived mistakes.
Writer/director Mark Romanek (Never Let Me Go) was known primarily as a music video director when he got the green light to make One Hour Photo, and this influence shows; there is a certain hipness to the film that recalls other slick cult favorites like Fight Club and Boogie Nights. The most intriguing element of the film’s direction is the effortless way in which Romanek blurs the line between reality and Sy’s fantasy world, often tricking the audience into believing what they’re seeing when it’s all just a fabrication of Sy’ warped imagination. The film is dark and disturbing, and the presence of the usually affable Robin Williams as the central threat makes it all the more unsettling. One Hour Photo is a film that has to be seen to be believed; it’s horrifying in a very realistic way.
Robin Williams’ performance is easily the standout aspect of One Hour Photo. His portrayal of Sy, the photo guy, is completely against type for him, making it a huge shock for the viewer; it’s hard to believe that the creepy stalker in the film is the same actor who was Mork from Ork on “Happy Days.” From the clinical voiceover narration in which he waxes philosophical about the art of photography to the barely-keeping-it-together madness of the film’s climax, Williams is on point. His emphasis on the loneliness and isolation that Sy feels turns the character into a sympathetic anti-hero; even though he’s a highly disturbed individual who lives within a fantasy that he has created for himself, the audience feels sorry for him and, as a result, the true antagonists of the film become the other characters: the members of the Yorkin family, Sy’s boss at the Sav-Mart, other photo customers – anyone except Sy. What Williams does is fascinating; he makes the audience almost root for the character that is giving them the willies. There is not an ounce of comedy in Williams’ performance (or in the movie itself, for that matter), but the actor pulls it off, proving that he is more than just a feel-good guy. One Hour Photo is the last kind of film that an audience would expect to come from Robin Williams, but the funnyman uses it to create one of the most sinister roles of his career.
There’s a fascinating and distinct look to One Hour Photo, one that can be attributed primarily to the talents of cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, who has shot many of David Fincher’s movies, including Fight Club, The Social Network, and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The photography combines the lighting palette of a Fincher movie with the symmetrical framing of a Wes Anderson film, mish-mashing the influences around into something that is unique in and of itself. Cronenweth has a great eye for color, creating a cool juxtaposition between the white sterility of the photo lab and the natural warmth of the Yorkin home. When the film gets more dramatic, Cronenweth bathes the sets in shades of green and red to manufacture an intensity within the scenes. The look of the film is both precise and gritty, perfectly complimenting the ominous and foreboding storyline. For such a disturbing film, One Hour Photo looks beautiful.
For the music to One Hour Photo, Mark Romanek initially reached out to Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor (The Social Network) to compose the soundtrack. The music that Reznor turned in was not exactly what Romanek had in mind, so he approached the scoring team of Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek (Cloud Atlas, I, Frankenstein) for a mulligan while Reznor’s pieces ended up on the Still disc of the NIN album And All That Could Have Been. Heil and Klimek contributed a more traditional score to the picture, one that is a combination of classic film music and electronic noise rock that blends in seamlessly with the calming diegetic Muzak of the Sav-Mart aisles, giving the seemingly safe environment a sinister vibe. Part musical film score, part electronic sound design, the soundtrack to One Hour Photo helps set the eerie tone of the film.
There are actors, and then there are stars. Robin Williams was both. He could make people laugh in comedies and cry in dramas. While he never abandoned his comedic roots, he was not afraid to tackle parts in darker films like The Night Listener and The Final Cut. Whatever role he took, he played it to perfection, and the best example of his pure acting talent is his performance in One Hour Photo.