One Hour Photo

onehourphotoSy Parrish (Robin Williams) is not Norman Bates, nor is he Travis Bickle. On some level those two were comprehensible. You can see that, were it not for a wrong turn (some emotional reservoir that was incorrect), they could have functioned in society; been happy, even. Sy is too pathetic. Lost in dementia, he can’t act rationally. He is broken.

Sy works in a photo lab. The Yorkins are regular customers, and he calls himself “Uncle Sy” – so strongly does he identify with them through their photographs. In one of those movie-psycho displays, he makes copies of their photos to put on the wall. His attempts to reach out are rebuked (rather gingerly), and his job is jeopardized by hundreds of prints that have gone unaccounted for. Slowly it dawns that the perfect family fantasy is a lie.

From Sy’s perspective do we see the film, and this is bad. Sy is too warped and unappealing. We can’t root for him. When he interacts with the Yorkins, there is too much tension – he’s always on the edge of being humiliated. He deserves it, of course, but it’s like watching a three-legged cat walk on the back of a sofa. He shouldn’t be there, and I don’t wanna see the poor thing fall.

One Hour Photo gets worse as it goes along. Sy does threatening things for no reason; the climax is silly, if not implausible; and the speech at the end, while not as banal as the psychiatrist’s in Psycho, reveals nothing. It is dull and tacked-on. It robs Sy of the one thing he has going for him: mystery. No explanation is always better than a bad one.

This is a shame because the movie is well-produced and the acting good. Famous for his NIN videos (“Closer” in particular), Mark Romanek, the director, gives the film a very specific and gorgeous look. Among his previous work, the closest visual analog is the video for David Bowie’s “Jump They Say”1. For example, swatches of a single color are contrasted by a single element (e.g., the antiseptic SayMart, a white canvas that brings a deeper focus to the colored objects that move across).

Romanek’s use of color is similar to Suspiria‘s. In that movie color characterized the camera – it was an active, malevolent force. In One Hour Photo it creates a sense of emotional violence against the stark white surface. The footage of photos being processed is equally bold2. Again and again, Romanek and his cinematographer, Jeff Cronenweth, provide stunning, startling images.

But a film has to be more than pretty, and One Hour Photo is not strong enough to keep our interest. There isn’t anyone to hang your hat on, and a thriller with no sympathetic characters is not a thriller. Because of its narrative simplicity, Suspiria works – the physical beauty takes over. By introducing a character of psychological complexity, One Hour Photo demands that we see the film on intellectual terms. On those terms, it fails to thrill and it fails to elicit emotion. Ironically, a stupider script would have been more satisfying. The movie knows where it wants to go, but it doesn’t know how to get there.

1On the Best Of Bowie DVD, reviewed here.

2Maybe there should be no dialogue.

About Kent Conrad

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