One Hour Photo (2002)
For most people, their personal photos are among their most prized possessions. These still images offer us a timeline of a person’s life, featuring them in their proudest and happiest moments of their lives. Or they can offer a means of collecting the faces of everyone who they hold dear in their lives, whether they be friends, family or spouses, keeping them alive in the memory. However, what of the man who develops your photos, whose photos adorn his walls?
It’s this lonesome individual that we trust to look upon all of our happiest moments, yet has none of his own, that is the focus of Mark Romanek’s thriller One Hour Photo, a film featuring the greatest performance from one of our most beloved and dearly missed stars.
The film follows Seymour “Sy” Parish, a dedicated and lonely photo technician working in a superstore. Sy strives to ensure that his customer’s photos are given the best possible treatment and care, particularity to the Yorkin family, a young suburban family whose photos Sy has developed for years. However, Sy is also obsessed with the family, keeping his own copies of their photos for his own private collection and eventually begins to stalk them, craving the love and intimacy that they appear to enjoy, but that he does not.
Sy Parish is possibly the blandest man in the world, a sort of “wallpaper person” if you wish, a man so incredibly unremarkable that he who could almost blend into the background. In public, he is a dedicated and smiling employee of a superstore, one who is cheerful and kind to the customers. In private though he is a deeply troubled and somewhat disturbed man, the walls of his apartment adorned with his own personal collection of photos of the Yorkin family, daydreaming to himself of joining them for Christmas and being their beloved “Uncle Sy”.
With a different actor in the role, (Romanek originally offered the role to Jack Nicholson) these very creepy qualities would make Sy Parish come off as a loathsome character, one whom we longed to see caught and brought to justice. However, with someone as gifted as the late Robin Williams in the role, we instead see the character in a very different light.
Williams in his careful and restrained performance manages to make Sy a sympathetic character, he might have a creepy personal collection of photos and he does indeed stalk members of the Yorkin family, but we can understand that he does it out of a painful sense of loneliness and longing. He doesn’t do it out of spite or hatred and he clearly doesn’t wish them any harm, he just wants to be a part of the family and to experience their happiness, a happiness that he has longed for his entire life.
We even feel a degree of sympathy when SY loses his job when his bosses notice that extra photos are being printed, with his anguish at being fired feeling understandable, with his work being his life. His tearful breakdown while looking at photos taken by the Yorkin’s son (whom he gave a free camera as a gift) is genuinely sad to watch.
The character does take on a much more sinister and darker edge as the film goes on, especially when he inadvertently uncovers an affair involving Will Yorkin, the father and husband of the family. With Sy developing an intense hatred of the man who has everything that he longs for but squanders with his selfish behaviour.
The scene in which Sy menaces Will and his mistress in a dimly lit hotel room is genuinely unsettling to watch, particularly when he begins to take suggestive photos of them, angrily demanding they “smile” and that they “look like you’re having fun”. I’ll also admit that an earlier scene in which he attempts to give the Yorkin’s son a free toy, (after following him to sports practice no less) does have an extra creepy vibe to it.
However, when the film reaches its climax and Sy is being interviewed by a detective (the film is largely presented as a flashback) we begin to understand the motivation for Sy’s actions.
The monologue in which Sy describes the ways that the detective is a “good father” offers a tragic explanation as to why Sy is a loner, with it heavily implying the horrific things that Sy’s father did to him as a child. Using the speech as a means to release all his pent-up anger and sadness at his own tragic life, his anger at Will for squandering his ideal life with his adultery, and his deep longing to just have a family to love him. It’s a powerful moment that is definitely one of the finest displays of Robin Williams dramatic talents.
Williams is outstanding in the role and it only goes to show how much range he truly had as a dramatic actor, with him successfully making a potentially unsympathetic creep of a character, into a tragic loner who you feel genuine pity for.
While he gave many great performances throughout his long and varied career, I personally feel that Sy Parrish is the best performance that Robin Williams ever gave.
It’s just shame that he didn’t do many other roles that allowed him to draw on the darker sides of his personality (check out Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia if you want to see Williams once more cast against type, albeit in a slightly more evil role).
One Hour Photo is an underrated gem of a film, with Robin Williams giving us a truly haunting portrayal of a man suffocating under his loneliness and his desire for a family to love him. Find this film and give it a watch.