Another week, another new contributor to 10YA. Please welcome Joe Glonek, here with a detailed look at music video director Mark Romanek’s second film, the uber-creepy One Hour Photo.
The Build Up:
Late 2002: I was still in high school, half a year away from driver’s ed, listening to Rage Against the Machine, reading Spider-man comics, and pining after girls I was too afraid to talk to. I was still struggling with making friends and being picked on in classes, all pretty standard fare for a quiet, nerdy kid growing up. Movies, videogames, and drawing were my main focuses in life. Good distractions from my generally down and lonely day-to-day activities and the stressful opera that was high school. A friend and I would go to Best Buy every Wednesday to throw money onto a counter and flee with a handful of shrink-wrapped goodness. I built up quite the collection with my weekly movie runs. New releases, old classics, I was kind of obsessed when I was younger. Reading reviews, making lists, and sitting in my room for hours watching movies and their respective commentaries. To this day I still think back, ever so fondly, about the first time I watched Lethal Weapon 2 while eating a big jug of Chinese garlic shrimp and chicken wings. In retrospect, however, social skill development would have been a wiser past time, but at least I have all this ridiculous information skittering around in my head.
I did not see One Hour Photo in theaters so technically this is like 9.5 years later for me—pause for the gasp—but I did pick it up day one on DVD. I remember being very interested in Robin Williams’ 2002 foray into darker territory. I only saw Death to Smoochy once, a long time ago, and I barely remember it. I just have vague flashes of Edward Norton in the Smoochy suit, like a distant fever dream. I should really pop it back in. Insomnia, however, I am quite the fan of. I think it has Williams’ best performance of the three, smart and manipulative, actually unnerving. It also has Pacino being very Pacino, gum chewing and all, which I just can’t say no to. I remember being really excited to check out One Hour Photo. I am a self-proclaimed horror fan and thoroughly enjoy a good ‘portrait of a crazy guy’ kind of movie, à la American Psycho or The Stepfather. A photo store clerk that becomes obsessed with the ‘perfect family’ and takes things too far when he starts to see the cracks between their perfect snapshots. It’s a great premise for a tense, psychological-suspense movie. I really liked it when I first saw it. I thought it was genuinely well made and scary, and I must have watched it a few too many times because I feel like I knew the movie beat for beat while re-watching it for this review. I thought Robin Williams brought the creep in just the right ways and was able to find a relatable balance to the character of Sy. Even though yelling at someone to “put his thing in your mouth” while brandishing a hunting knife and a disposable camera is never an okay thing to do, I remember feeling kind of sorry for the guy in the end. I don’t think I’ve watched this movie since the initial high, but any time it popped into my head I had fond recollections of it all just working.
I must have grown very cynical over the last 10 years.
Seymour “Sy” Parrish (Robin Williams) is under arrest. Mug shots are taken by an overly ominous camera and he is brought into an interrogation room where he patiently awaits one of the Detectives who brought him in. In a classic storytelling device we are at the end of the story and given bits of dialogue to plant the seeds of what’s to come as we learn what brought Sy to this point, what the mysterious photos are of.
Cut to a montage of the Yorkin family having a slow-mo, water gun spraying, ninth birthday party for Jake (Dylan Smith). Sy narrates about the art and psychology of why people take photos as we see what looks like a very happy, picture frame family enjoying an awesome day together.
No one takes a photograph of something they want to forget.
When we get our first real glimpse at the family, Will (Michael Vartan) is hard at work watching a 3D model of a chair spin around on his computer while Nina (Connie Nielsen) tries to get ready for a trip to the store. There is a subtle hint of ‘busy husband not spending time with his family’ but it isn’t dwelled on for too long before we are left with kind of a weird look on Will’s face after Nina and Jake take of. I admit that most of my focus was on that spinning chair.
The two arrive at Savmart, an extremely well realized but too pristinely clean take on Wal-Mart, and Nina brings a few rolls of film and a camera to the photo lab. We learn that Sy has been handling the Yorkin’s photo developing since before young Jake was born, and even remembers their home address by heart. How normal. Seeing that her camera has one shot left, he takes one of himself to finish out the roll and the movie’s first struggle with setting a tone arises. In a scene worthy of a sitcom laugh track we watch as both Sy and Nina awkwardly wait for the film roll to rewind. It’s not really funny, nor is it genuinely uncomfortably. It’s just there and I’m watching it. Sy agrees to a rush-job in order to get the photos done before the store closes, and Nina is off to I guess find her son.
When people’s houses are on fire… what’s the first thing they save after their pets and their loved ones are safe? The family photos.
As much as I didn’t find the awkwardness of the previous rewind scene to work, when it’s revealed that Sy incorrectly assumed the 5×16 photo size I think they both play it very well. You can practically see Sy’s entire existence shatter for a split second. Nina and Jake finally head home after their thrilling day at the mart, but not before Sy can eyeball the new book she bought. Thus begins the not-so-subtle back and forth home life scene. We start to see the imperfections in the Yorkin family as Will and Nina argue in the kitchen. Will is angry over money and uses the classic mansplaining technique of talking to his wife like a child, going so far as asking her if she believes in money fairies. Nina tells him that he is an emotionally neglectful husband and father, which ends the argument. Jake overhears all and runs off to his room. Sy’s at home scene very quickly establishes him as a loner, a loser, and a psycho stalker who occasionally enjoys watching The Simpsons. Specifically, he enjoys watching the very on-the-nose episode “Cape Feare” while sitting in front of his giant freaking wall montage of Yorkin family photos.
Another light hearted scene where Sy describes the usuals who drop off photos, including Mrs. Von Unwerth (when I first realized that all the names in this movie are in-fucking-sane), the lady who only takes photos of her cats. Also, hello random armature porn montage of an extremely uninterested girl in a dirty room, I didn’t realize you were hiding behind the crazy cat lady. It’s not that these lighthearted scenes are done poorly, or that they don’t belong in a movie like this, it’s just that this movie is constantly struggling to find its tone and these scenes aren’t helping. There are ways to add levity to a serious movie without interrupting the overall stress and tension level, these moments just feel confused here. This is followed almost immediately by Sy, in the break room, imagining he is a part of the Yorkin family Christmas. A creepy thought, but it’s not creepy when a grandmotherly looking Robin Williams is obviously very (very) stoked about the awesome sweater he just received. These two scenes are broken up by a brief moment of anger and obsession from Sy as he argues with the printer repair guy, but I don’t think it’s enough to save this kind of strange section of the movie.
After leaving the break room Sy runs into Will for what appears to be the first time ever. Sy is practically speechless at the sight of the mythical Will Yorkin, but talks just enough about his wonderful family and beautiful house for Will to see some red flags (Nina could use this red flag detecting skill in a later scene). Will is an asshole, but at least knows what’s up… at least about the creepy photo guy, he is still quite flabbergasted about whether things in the aisle will work with “the Mac.” Sy bumps into Jake on his way to the front of the store and is shown Neon Genesis Evangelion a toy that Jake really wants. Jake and Will leave and Sy heads back to work.
I was here. I existed. I was young. I was happy… and someone cared enough about me in this world to take my picture.
After an excursion to a flea market where Sy purchase an old photo of a woman, he parks his car in front of the Yorkin house and prepares himself. He narrates something about how people don’t take pictures of “the wasp on the Jell-O” and exits the car. The Sy B & E scene definitely stands out in my memory as one of the scenes in this movie. It’s just so weird. He slips in through the sliding glass door and makes rounds in the house. He finds the photo he took of himself stuck to the fridge and gives an aw-shucks to Jake’s dirty room. Then he is on their toilet, looking extremely psyched to be there. Finally he slips on Will’s sweater and pants, grabs a beer, and watches the game while chatting with the family dog. I have no idea what is going on. Tension builds as the front door knob begins to turn. Sy sits up and braces himself as the Yorkin family walks into the living room to find him. They stare, deer in headlights for a moment before Will finally speaks.
Oh you got me, movie. I can’t believe I fell for that.
Sy attempts to give Jake a present after suspiciously watching him at soccer practice, though not suspiciously enough for the coach to really care, but Jake turns down the toy. Instead they walk and chat for a bit and we get a small glimpse into Sy’s back-story. He was fat as a child, constantly sick with mono or hepatitis, broke his collarbone falling out of a tree. A real hard luck case. Jake bikes off and Sy heads to the mall to stalk Nina instead. They “accidentally” bump into each other in the food court and Sy starts spouting off about how he feels like he’s Uncle Sy. Unphased by the inherent creepy, Nina starts to get up from her table but is drawn back when Sy slickly whips out the book she had purchased earlier, The Path to Love by Deepak Chopra. After waxing poetic for a moment with quotes like “The things we fear the most have already happened to us,” Nina calls Sy a deep thinker and finally leaves the food court.
I think one problem this movie has is that it played the ‘Sy is a lunatic’ hand way too early. End of day one we see his wall of Yorkin and how obsessed and crazy he really is. There is no real build up to it and then it’s right there in front of you, out in the open. Scenes like the mall one just aren’t able to amp Sy up as a threat any further and ultimately land kind of flat as a result. Things start ramping up soon, but this whole middle chunk of the movie is visibly struggling.
Sy is called into his manager Bill’s (Gary Cole) office and told about a problem with the “click count.” There are hundreds of unaccounted for prints over the last few years and despite his best attempts at lying, the manager tells Sy that he is being let go. Another glimpse of the rage within Sy slips out but he still remains completely crushed by the news. Not only does this put his passion and livelihood at risk, but also the life he built through the Yorkin photos is ostensibly over. This scene is great and clearly shit is about to start flying now. Unfortunately, this is followed by another tone struggling scene which finds Sy, in full on despair mode, sitting on a bed in the furniture section of the store. A Hello Kitty is chilling on the pillow next to him, and the slow pan out to reveal even more fake furniture just makes me laugh. I can’t feel whatever emotion you are trying to get me to feel, movie. I just can’t!
Sy has an angry, distant interaction with Nina and Jake as they arrive to drop off some more film, specifically the free disposable camera that Sy gave to Jake as a birthday present. Nina is concerned when he can’t remember their address anymore but Sy shrugs off her concerns. She still looks very heartbroken over the whole thing, acting. Everyone involved leaves looking like their day was ruined, and Sy finds a corner in the processing room to cry over the final set of pictures that he will ever see from the Yorkin family, Jake’s. The photos are all very childlike and random. Close ups of playground equipment and blurry objects.
Back at home, Sy begins some investigation. You see, in a scene I neglected to write about previously we met Maya (Erin Daniels). Outside of the fact that she had one whole scene dedicated to her, coming in and dropping off some film, she has had no place in the story. Sy recognized her but couldn’t quite place it and as an audience we all but forgot that she existed. Magnifying glass in hand, he finds a group photo with Will and Nina and scours the faces. I admit that the steps Sy took to connect the dots here have eluded me but he does find Maya’s face in the photograph. She knows the Yorkins. Intrigued, he goes back to Savmart to find her photos and have a gander. What he finds are really well done, self-shot pictures of Maya and Will Yorkin making it on some sunset washed beach. She is really talented, holding that camera so well and eating Will’s face at the same time. This is all too much for Sy who breaks down in the evil red light of the dark room, and in a moment that I literally shook my head over, he stares up at an actual light bulb when his brilliant idea hits. Sy decides to slip one of these pictures in with Jake’s to expose the Yorkins for the frauds that they really are.
The next day, Sy says goodbye to his protégé Yoshi (Paul H. Kim) and walks through the aisles towards the back of the store. Dramatic music swells as he makes his way through the food aisles and the stuff aisles, until he finds himself in front of the hunting supplies. Still armed with the skeleton key to the store (despite being fired and on the way out the door) he unlocks a glass case and steals the biggest fucking knife they have. Sy waits in his car and follows Nina after she runs in to get Jake’s photos. A fairly lengthy drive later, Nina almost loses control of the car when the planted photo surfaces. After collecting herself she continues driving, with Sy following right along. He watches from the street near their house as they enjoy a seemingly normal family dinner. Waiting and waiting for things to explode but nothing happens. He has enough and drives off, not stopping at a stop sign because he’s evil.
“What the hell is wrong with these people?”
Up next is the only horror/nightmare scene in the entire movie. It comes out of nowhere and leaves just as quickly. Sy is silently standing in an empty Savmart aisle, eyes shut. He finally opens them to reveal completely red, filled with blood eyes. He throws his hands over them just as gushes of blood start spraying from his face. A good scream and a wake up later and it’s over. That’s what you get for wearing your watch to sleep, I guess. Just another example of this movie having very little understanding of the tone it wants to create. It just feels misplaced to have this typical jump scare scene as a lead-up to the actual emotional violence at the end of the movie. Sy moves on with his ultimate plan but not before scratching off Will’s face in every single photo on his wall.
The word “snapshot” was originally a hunting term.
In a move that ultimately has very little to do with anything, Sy drops off some film at Savmart while combating the ruffled feathers of the manager and leaves. Ignoring the aside mention of an ‘anal sex fiend,’ the photos turn out to be an increasing close up of the manager’s young daughter playing on her front lawn. Time to call the authorities. Det. Van Der Zee (Eriq La Salle) and Det. Outerbridge (Clark Gregg) are brought in to investigate Sy. His apartment is raided and we are treated to 17 different close-up shots of the scratched out Yorkin family photos as the police take it all in. 17. The Detectives arrive at the Yorkin house and explain the situation to Nina, who does her best to reach Will but is unsuccessful. Nina and Jake spend the rest of the movie watching some kind of tornado documentary as the Detectives make their way to the hotel. It’s about this point that you realize just how sluggish the Detectives are actually moving. They seem thoroughly unconcerned that Sy is a potential threat and even less interested in getting where they need to go.
Sy has followed Will and Maya to their hotel and despite his baby blue messenger bag, he managed to James Bond his way into getting their room number and ensuring no one would come knocking. Two phone calls and it’s all he needed. Armed with a camera and the hunting knife, he forces the door in when Maya opens it.
“This is pretend, this is all pretend!”
This is really the scene of the movie and it still delivers on how uncomfortable it all is. After forcing his way inside he has Will shut the blinds and has them both to get naked (which admittedly isn’t a far journey). At knifepoint, Sy begins directing them in a no-touch pretend sex session so he can take pictures of it all. Simulated hugging, simulated kissing, simulated oral. He wants to capture the idea of the acts but doesn’t want to be witness to the actual thing. He rages any time they mistake a direction and when they can’t muster up the smiles he demands. It’s a legitimately tense scene, which makes up for a lot of the rocky journey to this point. It’s a shame the tension wasn’t built up better beforehand, and a few wink and nod lines like “you get the picture?” come dangerously close to collapsing the entire thing. Writers note: there appears to be porn playing on the TV in the room. It appears to be hippie porn?
Back in his own hotel room, Sy decompresses. He seems completely out of it and it takes him a long time to notice the flickering red and blue lights from beyond the drapes. There is a fairly mediocre chase scene through the hotel and parking garage, which results in his arrest. The two Detectives barely scrounge together enough energy to make their side of this story at all interesting. They both get to the hotel, both check inside Sy’s room for way too long. Only when the exit alarm goes off does one of them remember that they should probably check on WIll. In the room, Will and Maya are alive, though the emotional impact of the event is more than evident. Mara is curled up in the shower; Will is sitting motionless on the edge of the bed. Will arrives back and home. Jake runs to greet him while Nina simply watches from across the room. Will’s infidelity and Sy’s obsession turned the picture-frame family to more or less a broken shell.
“But I can see by the ring on your finger and your response that you are. That makes you a fortunate man. I can also tell be the way you’ve treated me so far that you’re a good man, and and that you appreciate your good fortune. You’re not the kind of man who would cheat on his wife, hurt his family, abuse their trust. You would never neglect and abuse your children. Make horrible demands of your children. You would never ask your children to do things… things that children shouldn’t do. You would never take disgusting, sick, degrading pictures of your children doing these things! You would never treat your children like animals. Will Yorkin had it all and he threw it away. He is not a good father.”
The interrogation room scene closes out the story and fills in a lot of Sy’s history through his one speech to the Detective. It’s a little sloppy to throw it all out there like that, here’s his motivation, here’s why he directed them like that, why he didn’t want them to touch, here’s why he took the pictures, but I think Robin sells this scene really well. I remember thinking so 10 years ago and I still think so today. The movie ends with Sy asking to see the photos he took. The Detective agrees and we watch as Sy lays out all of the photos from the envelope. They are all very reminiscent of Jake’s pictures, childlike. Close up shots of different objects around his hotel room, out of focus. The movie ends with another Sy fantasy where he and the Yorkins posed for one more photo together.
One Hour Photo is, at its core, the portrait of a damaged, lonely guy who latched onto the idea of an impossibly happy family because the possibility of having is own was taken from him through childhood abuse. Once he saw that this perfect family isn’t really perfect either, he snapped, I think the core story is great and there are many moments throughout that make it worth watching. That said, it’s hard for me to overlook how sloppy it can feel at times. The seemingly haphazard shifts from drama to comedy to thriller to horror movie to a really boring police procedural. The uneven storytelling, which has trouble keeping a sense of tension throughout. The overall underwhelming acting, Robin Williams and Gary Cole are the only standouts, and let’s face it Gary Cole playing a boss isn’t unusual. There is one waitress in particular that is either the most amazing actress at being naturalistically tired/uninterested or she is really awful. I think I’ve just grown more jaded over the years and am less willing to overlook minor-medium flaws. The movie isn’t bad, by any means, it’s a good thriller that is definitely worth a watch, just don’t expect a lot of thought provoking ideas or consistency.
Too Long Didn’t Read:
After 10 years I think that One Hour Photo holds up well. My more cynical, jaded sensibilities definitely found a lot of flaws throughout, specifically with tonal shifts and some overall sloppy storytelling. The final “attack” scene is still tense and uncomfortable, the way it should be. Robin Williams does a great job with the character. I can’t say that any of the other actors stood out, though; in fact most of them were kind of bad. I don’t think it holds up in the pantheon of thrillers, but I enjoyed watching it again.
The Number of Times Robin Williams Pushes Up His Glasses: