One Hour Photo (2002)

*. 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.

20 thoughts on “One Hour Photo (2002)

  1. fragglerocking

    Plenty of places still develop film, but no it’s not cheap. I’ve seen this movie and it was good to see Williams do something different, but i wouldn’t put it on my list of greats.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Are there really that many places? You’re actually the only person I know who shoots on film, and you’re a professional. I can’t think there are many other people out there who do it. It’s become a real specialty niche.

      Though I just checked online and I guess there are four locations that still do it in my hometown. I don’t know how busy they are.

      I remember when I was in grade school there was a “camera club” and I actually learned how to develop film in a dark room. Did quite a bit of it. Putting the strip of film in that machine and projecting the negative, swirling the pictures around in the various tubs of chemicals. Don’t think many kids have memories of that today!

      1. fragglerocking

        Digital photography is the norm but I wouldn’t call film photography niche, there are a lot of film photographers out there, I follow them on YouTube and on here. Also the cost of vintage film cameras has really escalated as its popularity has grown. Kind of like how vinyl has become big again.


    Like Fraggle, I wasn’t wowed by this, although it’s not awful. Have found it hard to go back to Robin Williams films after his death, and this particular triilogy in particular. These films were part of following the narrative of Williams as a comic becoming an actor, but that narrative, as you say, didn’t go far beyond this.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yeah, it’s just OK. It doesn’t stand out today mainly because I think it’s just too tame to register in the psycho-stalker genre. Williams was creepier in Insomnia.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Best bet are camera shops. If they don’t do it they should know someone who does. Might be scary to find out what’s on that film though . . .

      1. Bookstooge

        Considering it was Mrs B’s camera, I suspect pictures of flowers, landscapes and possibly bunnies or that type of animal. She can’t get enough of that kind of thing.

      1. fragglerocking

        There’ll be somewhere you can send the film to and they’ll send it back as photos or digital files in an email or on a disc. Exciting to find an old roll!

  3. Tom Moody

    I wrote about this movie when it came out from a visual art perspective (which I find more interesting than the film itself):
    On the artificial dream quality of SavMart I wrote:
    As evidence of the film’s “artiness” [Salon’s Charles] Taylor obsessed about the sterile squeaky-clean interior of the Walmart-type store where much of the action takes place, blasting it as a caricature that condescends to the American middle class. Yet Jim Hoberman in the Village Voice was much more perceptive in recognizing that this interior, like the film’s Danish-modern police headquarters (and having the cops working for something called the “Office of Threat Management”) were among its many subtle, almost science fictional elements. Other critics suggested that the slickness of the “Walmart” reflected the protagonist’s deluded POV; still others recognized the interiors as Kubrick-land and let it go at that.

    1. Alex Good

      Wow Tom! That’s a great write-up. I hadn’t thought of the meaning behind the odd photos that the police hand over to Sy at the end. I think Sy may be an artist manqué. He wants to be an artist, and that may be a greater source of frustration to him than any sexual hang-ups. He’s fascinated with the tools of the trade and the equipment and what other people do, but you get the sense he doesn’t have much in the way of talent himself so he constructs psychological excuses.

      1. Tom Moody

        Thanks. Artist manqué is a good way to describe him. In a way it also describes Romanek. There are many art precedents that could be read into the film (as I exhaustively enumerated) but I think Romanek was more interested in Sy as a damaged soul than a latent creative.

  4. Tom Moody

    Also, on the subject of letting a fired employee finish working to the end of the week:
    This was actually the norm in the not-so-distant past. As memory serves, it was actually around the time of the movie that corporations began treating all dismissed employees as potential threats and having Human Resources escort them off the premises the day of their firing.

    1. Alex Good

      You may be right. Though around this time I do remember people getting fired and they were just told to go. Not escorted out by security or anything, but just told to go and not come back. Because nobody wanted someone who had been fired hanging around.


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