Over the decades, Hollywood has provided all sorts of villains, from axe murderers to cops gone bad, from demonic boogeymen to alien invaders. But sometimes, the creepiest antagonist is the one who is conceivably a common fixture in everyday life. That's the case with Sy Parrish, Robin Williams' alter-ego in the realistic, finely crafted thriller One Hour Photo, written and directed by music video auteur Mark Romanek. This feature film debut for Romanek has a straightforward simplicity that its peers often lack, giving it an eerie atmosphere that coyly suggests intrigue and suspense.
As "Sy the Photo Guy," Williams is strangely earnest about his job in the photo processing lab of family retailer SavMart (think Wal-Mart). A mousy and unimpressive man, no one would suspect him of harboring an unhealthy obsession for the Yorkin family, comprised of father Will, mother Nina, and son Jake. Having developed their photographs for years, Sy has a unique--almost personal--insight into their lives, and begins to feel a special attachment to them. He fantasizes that he is part of their suburban bliss and fancies himself a well liked "uncle." His affections begin innocently enough, but his dark side slowly edges to the surface as his preoccupation with them takes a disturbing twist.
The conflict culminates when Sy discovers that Will is having an affair. Unable to understand why a man who "has everything" would cheat on his wife, Sy's obsession turns into venomous rage, and he provides Nina with evidence of her husband's infidelity. But when she fails to confront Will with the matter, Sy sets out to obtain more graphic proof of the affair: he forces Will and his mistress to have sex at knifepoint while he takes explicit pictures of them.
Quiet and unsettling, Robin Williams delivers an unexpectedly effective villain in the form of Sy Parrish. His performance--the centerpiece of the movie--is made more impressive by the fact that the comedian is known for being such a manic jackass in his stand-up and interviews. His ability to tone down his typically overblown energy and direct it into a subtle intensity is a great example of acting. His personality is unrecognizable, and for the 90+ minutes of this movie, he inhabits a completely different role in a markedly compelling fashion.
The supporting characters are mixed. Connie Nielsen is good as Nina Yorkin, as is Eriq La Salle as a cop who investigates Sy's precarious predicament. But Michael Vartan and Gary Cole inhabit thoroughly uninteresting and one-dimensional caricatures. Vartan's Will Yorkin is an unsympathetic dirtbag, from the small things like his attitude to the big things like his affair. And as Sy's jerkwad boss Bill, Cole cranks out a non-comedic version of his middle-management twerp from the movie Office Space (how appropriate that his characters in both films share the same name). Had Will and Bill been complex enough to have some positive qualities, they could have painted Sy's actions in a more insidious light. But as they are, they actually detract from Sy's villainy by giving him a sort of justification for his criminal deeds.
One Hour Photo occasionally goes overboard with symbolic imagery. The nightmarish dream sequence is fairly standard issue for films of this type, and the television that foreshadows drama with a timely clip is a totally overused device. But these shortcomings are outweighed by a sophisticated script, a remarkable lead performance, and a tense atmosphere--all of which add up to be one of the best movies of 2002.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)