One Hour Photo

USA 2002

Film still for One Hour Photo

Reviewed by Peter Matthews


Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.

Suburban America, the present. Middle-aged loner Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) works at the photo-finishing counter in the local superstore. Over the years, he has become obsessed with frequent customers the Yorkins, and routinely prints extra copies of their family photos, which he displays in his seedy flat. Unbeknown to Sy, the marriage is strained, Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen) accusing husband Will (Michael Vartan) of being a neglectful father to their nine-year-old son Jake (Dylan Smith). Hoping to impress the family, Sy gives Jake a disposable camera and quotes from a self-help book he has seen Nina reading. After watching Jake at football practice, Sy offers him an action figure toy, but the boy declines it. Sy confesses to having been a fat, sickly and unpopular child.

Discrepancies are found in the photo click count and Sy is given one week's notice by the manager, Bill Owens (Gary Cole). Nina and Jake drop off the disposable camera for processing. Examining the photos of another customer, Maya Burson (Erin Daniels), Sy realises that she and Will are having an affair. On his last day at work, Sy places the incriminating nude shots in the same envelope as Jake's pictures, but is disappointed when Nina fails to confront Will about his infidelity. Sy returns to the store and demands to have some film developed. The roll turns out to contain images of Bill's young daughter. Searching Sy's flat, the police discover the wall of Yorkin memorabilia and note that Will's face has been methodically scratched out. Sy follows Will and Maya to a hotel. Pretending to be room service, he enters their suite and forces them at knifepoint to pose for pornographic photos. The police arrive to find Will and Maya still alive and apprehend Sy after a chase. Will returns to Nina and Jake. Under interrogation, Sy reveals that his father sexually abused him.


A colossal amount of effort has been poured into the quasi-thriller One Hour Photo, and unfortunately it shows. The craftsmanship is so strenuously neat that every frame should be awarded a gold star, but there isn't a breath of spontaneous life. Since the film is one more slam at soulless suburban materialism, the vacuum-sealed effect can at least be justified as intentional. Boy, is it intentional - director Mark Romanek hammers away at his ironies with the literal-mindedness of a doctoral candidate slaving over a thesis. Robin Williams plays Seymour Parrish, a geeky photo technician who plasters his wall with purloined snaps of the Yorkins, a supposedly picture-perfect family he worships and then stalks. In other words, it's Taxi Driver at the shopping mall, and you can't fail to notice how Sy's Kodachrome collage forms a pop art pattern much like the boxes of breakfast cereal or laundry detergent (brand names clearly visible for product placement) in the SavMart where he works. Both the Yorkins and psycho Sy aspire to the cheerful simulacra of advertising - a thoroughly knackered conception for which Romanek doubtless picked up tips in his earlier stints as music video impresario and pitchman for Nike and Calvin Klein. But pretty soon, fractures open in the shiny hyper-reality - figured all too graphically by the nasty crack spreading across Sy's windscreen. There's little to do but wait for the inevitable explosion and meanwhile count off the loaded touches in the ever-busy mise en scène.

Sy wears bland, retiring colours to convey little-man anonymity (even his hair looks beige), just as his creepily denuded flat suggests an absence of human connection. By contrast, the Yorkin residence is a profusion of warm earth tones, though it feels as ersatz as a mock-up at an Ideal Homes exhibition. Sy's inner derangement is specified with the bluntest expressionist palette - phosphorescent greens and yellows for the night scenes, satanic red in the photo lab when he discovers a worm at the heart of his apple-pie paradise. The prismatic symbolism reaches its apogee in a shock sequence (one of several rug-pulling stunts that confuse reality and schizoid fantasy) where, amid acres of pristine whiteness, Sy's eyes suddenly spout blood. Romanek's script spells out the already explicit with sundry banalities regarding the nature of photography and the image. We take pictures to stem the flow of time, our hero sermonises like a bush-league Roland Barthes ("I had no idea you were such a deep thinker, Sy," remarks Wasp mom Nina). But why preserve only the happy moments, he continues, why not immortalise the used band-aid or the wasp on the jello? Sy doesn't seem to have heard of Diane Arbus, and his philosophy is inconsistent to put it mildly. Romanek can't decide whether the character is a spaced-out Pollyanna or some sort of Swiftean misanthrope. Sy's flashes of jeering cynicism make so little sense in this context that he could be suffering from Tourette's syndrome.

The film tries to raise goose bumps over Sy's obsession, but it's hard to feel apprehensive for his victims when they are presented (however knowingly) as one-dimensional ciphers. Even the dysfunctional truth behind the façade is a soapy cliché - Nina's uptight bourgeois acquisitiveness drives emotionally starved Will to philander with free-spirited flower child Maya. The climax where Sy the moral scourge terrorises the adulterers (by forcing them to pose for porno pics) deserves a permanent place in the annals of cinematic embarrassment, but it indicates the mixed motives behind the enterprise. Romanek wants to be arty and commercial at the same time, yet the ideas are too crude for the one and the suspense too attenuated for the other. With the police taking farcical aeons to arrive at what proves a complete non-starter, One Hour Photo might be described as a slasher-movie-manqué (for a nail-biting exercise along similar lines, see Joseph Ruben's 1986 The Stepfather).

The bear-like Williams makes himself appear physically smaller for the role of Sy, and that's an achievement. The trouble is that his mannerisms - the soft, fawning voice and slow, defensive walk - send out a seriously wrong set of vibes. When Sy pats nine-year-old Jake Yorkin on the head, stakes out his football practice or propitiates him with a gift, the air is thick with frisson. The alarming hints (including a last-minute bombshell about Sy's childhood) add up to a textbook case of paedophilia, making the lesser perversion that serves as the official premise seem like pure camouflage. Still, one almost hopes for Romanek's sake that the displacement is unconscious, since it would mean that something has eluded his buttoned-down control.


Mark Romanek
Christine Vachon
Pamela Koffler
Stan Wlodkowski
Mark Romanek
Director of Photography
Jeff Cronenweth
Jeffrey Ford
Production Designer
Tom Foden
Reinhold Heil
Johnny Klimek
Last Updated: 20 Dec 2011