Monday, September 15, 2014

One Hour Photo (2002): Robin Williams At His Creepiest Best

 Since the untimely death of Robin Williams, it seems all we are left with is the plethora of films he made and the never-ending question of why.  How could something like this have happened?  And while I'm not going to get all philosophical about this tragedy I have to admit it has left me with more questions than answers. 

But it has also left me with a great deal of thanks to him for brightening my days with laughter and for making me think a little bit when he turned on the drama.  While films like Dead Poet's Society and Good Will Hunting showed us his vast dramatic acumen, there are other films of his that showcased his complex talent for bringing emotion to life on the screen.  

One of these overlooked gems is One Hour Photo. 

Sy Parrish is a middle-aged photo tech at a big box chain store (think Wal Mart) called Savmart.  On the surface, Sy seems like your ordinary store clerk, just trying to get through his day so he can get home to the wife and kids.  But look deeper.  You soon learn that Sy leads a pretty pathetic life, a solitary existence in which he is more likely to heat up a tv dinner for supper and sit around watching reruns of Barney Miller.  There is no wife. There are no kids.  There's not even a cat.  Unfortunately, Sy is more reclusive and introverted than you think.  He is also one fry short of a happy meal. His job at Savmart is all he lives for.  Well, that and the Yorkin family. 

The Yorkins, Will (Michael Vartan), Nina (Connie Nielsen) and their nine year old son Jake (Dylan Smith) are Sy's favorite customers.  He lets them know this when they come to the Savmart but not in an overly obvious way.  He takes their order and comments on things that happen in their lives, even going as far as to give Jake a "free" throwaway camera for his birthday. 

But Sy takes it a bit further than that.  He lives vicariously through them as he develops all their photographs and secretly makes copies of each picture for himself. 

In one of the creepiest moments in the film, we see just what he is doing with all those photos.  He has wallpapered his entire wall with their lives.  The Yorkins remain unaware of Sy's psychological problems and when Nina and Jake often drop film off they make polite conversation and seem only mildly rattled when Sy seems to remember key elements of their lives, brushing it off by reminding them that he takes great pride in developing their pictures.  Jake even feels empathy for Sy, admitting that "Sy the photo guy" seems very sad and that he doesn't think he has anyone that loves him.

Sy attempts to involve himself matter-of-factly into their lives by doing things like showing up at the mall where Nina shops to run into her and chat, buying Jake a toy he notices him admiring, and happening upon Will in the hardware department of the store to see if he can help him even though it's not his section.   He implants himself gregariously, even imagining scenarios in which he enters their home and is showering, making dinner, and watching television until the Yorkins get home and time stops - and then they laugh and joke with "Uncle Sy".  It's all very unsettling when you realize just how sad and potentially alarming Sy's behavior is. 

When Sy develops some photos which show Will and another woman very obviously having an affair, this sends Sy over the deep end - and that is when things get scary.  Sy begins to envision scenarios in which he confronts Will, and even easily sets it up so that Nina gets her hands on the incriminating photos.  Meanwhile, Sy's work suffers and his boss (played with flavor by Gary Cole) notices the photo count is way off base.  Questioning him about where all the extra photos are, he ends up firing him when Sy denies taking the pictures. 

When Sy finally snaps, it is the same time that the police become involved, leading to a show-down of sorts that goes in unexpected ways you won't see coming.  There is nothing loud or demonstrative about this film, but its quiet doom is malignant.  

Robin Williams was a true talent, and is no different here.  His Sy is so incredibly unnerving - so foreboding, that it almost feels possible to understand how someone could be depressed enough to do something completely out of sorts.  If I'd have seen this film before Williams' suicide, I think I'd have felt the same way, but this is such a clear picture of a desperately lonely man that it almost feels like I took a peek into reality - and what I saw was melancholy, somber, and most of all troubled.  I don't want to say that Robin Williams was able to easily emulate the character of Sy because of his own growing despondency, but in watching One Hour Photo, it is there.  It is just....there.  I would like to choose to believe he's just that good of an actor....but everyone puts a little bit of themselves into a role.   Here, it felt like a lot.  

Regarding the film, whether or not it showcased true emotions peeking through is not for me to say.  What I will say is that this is a great movie about a very lonely individual who let the lines of reality blur, causing him to shatter his existence as he knew it and fade into someone else's life.  It's a portrait of depression, isolation, and heartache whose final act only lays bare these facts:  there are people out there that no matter how kind you are to them, they are not living based in reality - and someday they are going to crack.  We just need to either be aware and try to help, or stay the hell out of their way before they turn into a sociopath. 


Francisco Gonzalez said...

Saw this one the other night (I was remembering Williams) and yeah, I agree with ya, it's such a sad story, a sad lonely character whom life cornered into a lonely existence. At first we feel sympathy for him, same as the little kid, but then he gets creepier and creepier. Its a simple film, yet very effective, so difficult to see Williams playing a villain since most of the time he plays these sweet, lovable characters.

Christine Hadden said...

It's exactly that: a simple film yet very effective. Mrs. Doubtfire felt about a million miles away after watching this one.
Thankfully we do have Williams' body of work to remember him by. It should make the process of holding him dear in our memory a little easier....

Nigel M said...

I was never really a fan of his. I won't be a hypocrite now he is gone and pretend that I was. But, I bought this film. Thought it was competent enough, I sort of felt that it sort of slipped into the anonymity of that great mass or so-so horror and thrillers that was coming out at the time. Now, there is one Robin Williams film that does blow me away though and strangely it one that is seldom mentioned. The World According to Garp is great film!

Christine Hadden said...

Ahh, Garp - I haven't seen that in years. I recall it being quite good though. I did admire a lot of his work, but will admit there were a few of his films that I wasn't really crazy about. His work in drama seemed to be consistently good in most cases.

One Hour Photo was really a different role for him, but I think he did an admirable job with the content. He was creepy as hell the further the movie went on! Unsettling, to say the least.

Carl Bachmann said...

I always thought that this role for Williams was a real deviation from the characters he usually portrays, but he did an impeccable job with this role. Maybe it has something to do with the isolation he has felt in real life. Maybe despite his success and adoration he felt as if he had been elevated to a point of isolation from others. Being at work he faces the mirror that says "don't forget to smile" - put on the mask- but at the end of the day, the mask comes off and he's home alone. Just a theory, and I, in no way, know anything about the mind of Robin Williams, but I suspect that it bears similarities to what goes on in the minds of many people including myself from time to time, and I bet this role was very cathartic for him.

Christine Hadden said...

Agreed, Carl. Watching this film after his death was kind of like attending a viewing or going to his wake. Felt too real, too close. I had seen it well before his untimely passing and just thought what a great job he did in it, for being such a normally funny guy.
Now, after his a whole new perspective.

Thanks for stopping by!!