Film and Television Features

One Hour Photo (2002)

One Hour Photo (2002) usually doesn't register as one of the late actor-comedian Robin Williams' definitive works, but it's a film like The Virgin Suicides (1999), Requiem for a Dream (2000), and Punch-Drunk Love (2002), which provoked my obsession in late high school. Looking back ten-twelve years, it's not difficult for me to relay why, especially considering my intense preference for psychological character portraits that has dominated my cinematic agenda since college studies. Despite One Hour Photo's third-act problems that culminate in tiresome thriller plotting, Robin Williams' repressed, voyeuristic performance is jaw-dropping, especially from an actor who is routinely associated with his manic, outspoken stand-up. Imagine Williams' discipline for tortured photo technician, Seymour "Sy" Parrish, who is a complete 180 from his renowned public persona. Of course, he had previously committed to more dramatic roles, most famously in 1989's Dead Poets Society (as Whitman-worshiping English teacher John Keating) and 1997's Good Will Hunting (as fatherly therapist Sean Maguire), but his portrayal of loneliness in this film is so hauntingly visible and heartbreaking.

Even in its final moments, writer-director Mark Romanek favors intrigue over exact elucidation, which would have been much riskier if it weren't for Williams' utterly gripping presence. With his pasty skin, muted gray formalwear, Velcro-strapped shoes, and thinning dirty blond hair, Sy is a ghostly passive observer throughout the film. A soul who has always existed on the periphery, it's like no one can ever ascertain everything about him. When dealing with the picture-perfect Yorkin family, who he has obsessed over, Sy is usually the one to establish or force a connection. When I first saw One Hour Photo in 2003, it's what I most strongly identified with- the compulsion to be noticed and loved in a world of rejection and temporality. The importance of photography pairs well with this idea, as Sy delivers a voiceover monologue about the relationship of permanence to the act of picture-taking. "If these pictures have anything important to say to future generations, it's this: I was here; I existed," he opines while searching a random box of old photographs at a flea market.

While many other characters, particularly the Yorkin parents (Connie Nielsen and Michael Vartan), exclaim they have limited time to communicate, Sy consistently stops to notice "the little things." This further humanizes him and fosters appreciation for the nuances in Williams' own portrayal, such as the nervous tap of his finger against the bridge of his glasses as well as his deliberate, sloth-like movements that show extreme care in every step as if he is perpetually perched on a precipice. Romanek smartly parcels out details of Sy's history; after attending the soccer practice of Jake Yorkin (Dylan Smith), the perceptive nine-year-old boy who he tries to win over as a stand-in uncle, Sy divulges a bit about his sicknesses as a child and broken collarbone from falling out of a tree. Care and control were obviously devoted to convey him not as a one-dimensional stalker but as a misfortunate and marginalized figure who's suffered embarrassment throughout his life.

One Hour Photo ultimately offers a tragic message about perception. While tangible photo albums are last century's preservation and public exhibition of our happiness and successes, people now rely upon social media to broadcast their achievements to a wider audience at a more rapid rate. In this age, we have continued to manipulate our own lives through technology. Sy does just this in the film, trying to model his reality after an illusory and incomplete picture. We all want to escape our troubles by transferring them onto something outside ourselves, but this is no substitute for direct confrontation and devising personal ways to overcome those obstacles. Perhaps this is what Williams taught me at an impressionable age- that the actor is capable of eliciting real empathy for our fellow man even if their characters are fictional.