*. Wow. Talk about how quickly technology can change huge swathes of our everyday lives. There are young people today who I’m sure won’t remember, or even in some cases be able to imagine, a time when there were photo shops in every mall and drug store. They were the places you took your rolls of film to be developed. Some of them offered to get you prints back in an hour, which was really fast!, and at some places you could actually watch the prints as they rolled out of the machine. All gone. I honestly have no idea where I’d take a roll of film to be developed today. I’m sure there are still places that do it, but they must be real specialty shops and I wouldn’t be surprised if they cost an arm and a leg.
*. There’s only a quick nod to the coming film-extinction event when Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen mentions to Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) that she’s thinking of switching to digital and he says she shouldn’t do that because he’d be out of a job. Which puts the rest of the movie in a different perspective. Sy might as well get fired as his photo desk is about to be shut down anyway. It’s time for him to start looking for a new line of work.
*. Writer-director Mark Romanek claimed to be inspired by films from the 1970s about lonely men, most notably Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, Polanski’s The Tenant, and Coppola’s The Conversation. On the DVD commentary he also mentions that Coppola saw a rough cut of this film and made some suggestions. I have to say I don’t see a lot of connection there at all. Instead, the movies I was most put in mind of were black comedies like The King of Comedy (1982) and The Cable Guy (1996). Maybe Travis Bickle was the archetype, but I think around this time the single, lonely person was becoming a less directly threatening and more absurd figure. Meanwhile, the empathy that the boy Jake here feels for Sy is a dangerous trap, not to be indulged. As messed up and dysfunctional as the Yorkin family may be, they’re still more wholesome than a single guy like Sy. He’s just a loser.
*. Williams received a lot of credit for his turn to the dark side, which he tripled down on in 2002 with his turn in Death to Smoochy and as the killer in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia. He referred to these movies as his “triptych of evil.” I think he’s good here, but nothing special. Though perhaps that’s deliberate, or a function of how restrained a movie this is. There’s no violence or gore. Williams says he was drawn to the character of Sy because he was the opposite of his own personality, and by that he meant quiet. This is a very silent movie, to the point where the manager of the SavMart has to hiss at Sy to keep his voice down, as though they’re in a library.
*. But is Sy that interesting a psycho? I don’t think so, and he has to carry the movie as the focus is on him throughout, with little attention paid to the Yorkin family. I liked his philosophizing about photos and what they mean to us (or used to mean to us), but aside from that he’s pretty shallow, even for a crazy person. It’s worth noting how impressed Nina is that he’s reading Deepak Chopra. “I had no idea you were such a deep thinker, Sy!” Well, I guess heavies can’t all be as intellectual and cultured as Hannibal.
*. Aside from Williams’s performance, what stands out the most is the look of the film. The SavMart sets the tone, being deliberately shot in an overlit, unrealistic manner that’s echoed in the blinding interrogation room. Romanek wanted something stylized but not cartoonish, as though it was the setting of a dream of the story, with a “heavenly, glowing, abundant quality.” Those perfectly arranged blocks of colour on the shelves are totally unlike anything you’ll see in a real Wal-Mart.
*. Maybe that artificial dream quality of the SavMart also plays into a couple of plot elements that bugged me. What boss fires someone in a humiliating way and then lets him finish working to the end of the week? Get your stuff and go! And why would Sy have a key to the locked cabinets in the sporting goods area? That’s not his section and as the guy running the photoshop he wouldn’t have anything to do with that part of the store.
*. Romanek also has a thing for hallways and aisles. They play a prominent visual role in the SavMart and the hotel. I wonder if The Shining was any influence here, as Jack Nicholson was apparently an early choice to play Sy and he might have thought he was at home back in the Overlook. I’m guessing the point here is that Sy is like a rat in a maze, but is that the feeling that’s evoked? I don’t feel like Sy is trapped here, perhaps in part because I feel so distant from him. When his back story is revealed at the end, in a manner so crude and perfunctory it makes the psychiatrist at the end of Psycho seem a grace note, it didn’t register with me at all.
*. One thing I did like is the suggestion of Sy as being a guy caught in his own photo album. This isn’t just the obvious things, like when he magically appears photoshopped (to make an anachronistic reference) into Yorkin family pics, but in the way the police spotlights pop up on him like flashbulbs going off, and how the window into the interview room looks like a frame for a mounted portrait.
*. A movie of a lot of dead ends. I don’t think Williams ever had any major roles after this that compared to what he’d done. Romanek seems to have had a quiet career. After this he signed on to direct The Wolfman and The Strangers but then dropped out of both projects (probably a wise move). Never Let Me Go (2010) would be his next movie and he hasn’t anything in his filmography since, instead going back to directing music videos. Nielsen played Wonder Woman’s mom. Michael Vartan had roles on several television shows.
*. But then the movie itself just sort of peters out. There’s no climax. It’s a slow burn that absolutely refuses to ignite. There’s no bite to it, unlike The Cable Guy, which is still a disturbing movie. Perhaps that’s because Chip is a scarier guy. Let’s face it, Sy isn’t very intimidating even with that giant knife. I couldn’t figure out why Will didn’t just take it away from him. But another reason might just be that we still have cable guys to harass us and we don’t have photo shops anymore.