Inside the washed-out Savmart, Seymour “Sy” Parrish has taken the development of high quality, snappy photos in an hour of less to an exact science. The pictures he gives you will be crisp, even if they aren’t the size you asked for. He greets your children with an unnerving predatory smile and offers them free cameras when it’s their birthdays. At first glance, Sy the photo guy is the perfect employee: Hard-working, devoted to the understanding of his customers, he even goes as far as memorizing his favorite customers’ addresses.
Beneath Sy’s bleached, broken appearance and carefully calculating demeanor lies an individual with a dark obsession. A giant wall of pictures hangs on the wall in his apartment, which is colored in flattened, bleak colors, much like Parrish’s existence. The pictures on the wall are meticulously cataloged and document his favorite customers, the Yorkins. Sy Parrish lives on the periphery of their upper-middle class existence, and he lives there alone.
Robin Williams’ depiction of the neurotic Sy Parrish is disarming. Williams’ voice-overs offer haunting fragments like “according to the Oxford English dictionary snapshot was originally a hunting term.” Williams is guided deep into the obsessively dark Sy Parrish, never breaking character.
Sy Parrish’s subjects and prey, the Yorkins, live a very normal life. Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen, “Gladiator”) plays the part of the soccer-mom perfectly. She is well-kept and well-maintained, just like the home she keeps. Her husband Will, (Michael Vartan, TV’s “Alias”) works all of the time, generating income for his family’s comfortable life. Their son, Jake(Dylan Smith) is as cute as he is innocent – Jake, sad early in the film, wonders if Sy the photo guy has friends and people who love him.
Mark Romanek both penned and directed “One Hour Photo” a different genre altogether than his previous body of work. Before “One Hour Photo,” Mark Romanek had primarily been a music video director, handling clips for Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, most notably the caustic video for “Closer.” Romanek carefully makes “One Hour Photo” a collection of snapshots, brought together through excellent art direction and use of color.
The visual contrasts between Sy Parrish and the Yorkins is evident in the deep devotion to set construction. Parrish’s home is empty and antiseptic. Aside from his wall of Yorkin, the home feels more like a hospital waiting room than it does an apartment. The interior is fabulously colored in whites and greys, flattened and empty.
Masterfully foiling Parrish’s apartment is the lavish, home of the Yorkins. The barren walls of Sy’s apartments are countered by walls chocked full of pictures, trinkets and gadgets. The colors are alive in the Yorkin household as opposed to the dead coloring of Parrish’s life. The Yorkins are the picture of the life that Sy Parrish wants and can’t have.
Parrish’s desperate attempts to be a Yorkin extend as far as offering Jake a camera on his birthday. He superficially attempts to ingrain himself into the Yorkin household, whether it be through watching Jake’s soccer practice, or reading the same book as Nina. In his fantasy world, he sits in the perfect Yorkin home, watching television, he eats their food, drinks their beer, uses their restroom – he is Uncle Sy Parrish.
When Sy discovers (through the pictures he develops) that the Yorkin family isn’t as perfect as he believes, he is crushed. The blow he feels damages him as much or more so than the family itself. The pedestal Parrish put the Yorkins on is shattered in a handful of photos.
After this dramatic realization, Parrish comes undone and takes matters into his own hands. He is infuriated that his ideal family has been broken, and here the fragility of Williams’ Parrish, much alluded to throughout the film’s ice-cold voice-work, boils over.
Romanek’s “One Hour Photo” is a beautiful piece of film. It is edited masterfully; the coloring and visuals appropriately lie at the center of this, a movie essentially about images. However, it is unfortunate that Romanek’s writing isn’t as rock-steady as the rest of the film.
During film’s climax, (the better part of the last half-hour) Romanek’s pacing is masterful, and enhanced by Robin Williams’ ability to be truly frightening, in far more than a creepy Savmart kind-of-way. This climactic build of frenzied intensity is undermined completely by the film’s transformation of Sy Parrish from a neurotically obsessive individual into someone with a psychosis. Through his writing, Romanek failed to realize that the scariest part about Parrish was his unfettering normality. The establishment of Parrish’s psychosis in the film’s final scene detracts from much of the created suspense, offering an all-too-easy answer to Parrish’s fragile condition.
“One Hour Photo” is similar to Shyamalan’s “Signs” in their respective conclusions, because both films take the easy way out, neatly packaging their endings so viewers can leave the theater feeling closure. With a mainstream major motion picture like “Signs” this end is to be expected, but “One Hour Photo,” being an independent film showing in very few theaters, and shouldn’t feel the need to wrap itself up so tightly, or concisely. The intensity that Romanek built so well for 90 minutes is destroyed in the final scene.