The cleanest, neatest discount store you’ve ever seen appears in Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo, a clean, neat, all-corners-squared psychological thriller whose quiet precision is the most unnerving thing about it. Any random Kmart looks like a tornado has passed through it and echoes with the high-pitched whines of tired children. But you could eat off the antiseptic white floors in Savmart, where the merchandise is arranged with obsessive/compulsive deftness along wide, orderly aisles, where happy customers find everything they’re looking for, their voices never rising above a pleasant murmur. It’s probably how Sam Walton imagines heaven.
This vision of retail perfection can’t be real, of course — it’s a projection, an illusion conjured in the mind of Sy Parrish, and if Savmart isn’t quite heaven for him, it’s surely an escape from hell. Sy works the one-hour photo counter in the front of the store, and though at first we can’t be sure from exactly what kind of purgatory he commutes every day, there’s no doubt that he dwells in a perpetual netherworld of his own making, connected by a bare, tenuous thread to the world of the living. Robin Williams (Insomnia, Death to Smoochy), in undoubtedly his best performance to date, creates a stark portrait of detachment and isolation: in the careful definitude of his movements, small and mouselike, Sy is a man folded in on himself, the kind of person who pours all his effort and attention into his work not out of a sense of responsibility but as a distraction from his own emptiness. From the very beginning, we suspect that the work — pathetically, making beautiful images of the happy times of other people — is all he has.
One of his regular customers, 9-year-old Jake Yorkin (Dylan Smith) worries to his mom, Nina (Connie Nielsen: Mission to Mars, Gladiator), that “Sy the photo guy” is sad and friendless. But Sy has friends, if imaginary ones: the Yorkins themselves, including Jake’s dad, Will (Michael Vartan: The Mists of Avalon). Sy knows — he tells us so in voiceover — that the snapshots people drop off at the Savmart for processing represent a skewed view of their lives. No one takes photos of the bad times, after all, so the collective notion one gathers from family pictures is a disproportionately happy one. But something in the accumulated perception of the Yorkins’ lives — Sy has been processing their photos since before Jake was born — fills some of the void inside him. There’s no doubt that his fixation on the Yorkins is creepy, but Sy is not a monster — I think this is the saddest creepy movie I’ve ever seen. His fantasy of being a part of their lives, their family, is, initially, a harmless one, comforting to him and completely unknown to the Yorkins, as fantasies that are not mutually shared should be. But Sy’s carefully constructed world — the harmony of the Savmart, the familial bliss of the Yorkins — is ripped away. He’d been protected from acknowledging his own inability to make a human connection — now, this sad reality slaps him in the face. He is not prepared to accept it.
Writer/director Romanek mines all his suspense and emotion from understatement — he knows that whispers draw more true attention than shouts, and so a disconcerting sense of quietude rules One Hour Photo. When we expect hysteria from a character, we get composure; when we expect the film to get big and loud, it stays small and hushed. Williams is so without his own brand of loudness that he seems all the more smothered than another actor might have — his Sy is raw and real, and in the end garners more disconcerting sympathy than you’d expect, after what he does. Together, Romanek and Williams have created the rare horror movie that frightens us only by demonstrating the heartbreaking depths of hollowness humans have the unfortunate capacity to achieve.