One Hour Photo

(2002) *** 1/2 R
95 min. Fox Searchlight. Director: Mark Romanek. Cast: Robin Williams, Connie Nielsen, Michael Vartan, Gary Cole, Dylan Smith.

Writer-director Mark Romanek's One Hour Photo updates the psycho stalker picture for the new milennium. The genre which reached its height in the early nineties, when otherwise legitimate directors like John Schlesinger (Pacific Heights), Curtis Hanson (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and The River Wild), and Barbet Schroeder (Single White Female) processed upper-middle-class, white-bread family fear into pulpy, run-of-the-mill thrillers with questionably motivated stock killers terrorizing suburban sinners.

One Hour Photo, at heart, isn't much better than those efforts, but like the earlier films, Romanek's picture deftly taps into our insecurities and vulnerability, while also having the good sense to make its "villain" a recognizable and sympathetic antihero. It's also a pleasingly well-shot endeavor with a purpose to its careful composition. This is, after all, a film as much about the photographic point-of-view as anything else. Eschewing the Grand Guignol elements of Michael Powell's Peeping Tom, music video director Romanek opts for the ticking-time-bomb, antiseptic, wide-angle creepiness of mid-career Kubrick.

Robin Williams plays Sy Parrish, whose carefully cultivated and maintained one-hour photo lab resides just inside the entrance of the gargantuan capitalist abyss of a SavMart store. Parrish is a lonely soul, who obsessively pours all of himself into the lab while gradually allowing himself to be sucked into the photographs of one family. The film details what happens when Parrish gets up the gumption to put some moves on the Yorkin family (mother Connie Nielsen, father Michael Vartan, and son Dylan Smith). As he begins to insinuate himself (as a hopeful "Uncle Sy"), the rest of his universe collapses, leaving him to hang on to the Yorkins or tumble away into the blackness.

Romanek twists these high-stakes screws to good effect. This is a concept movie and, as such, succeeds not so much based on a screenplay (Romanek's is effectively simple but occasionally rote) as concept and execution. Romanek and DP Jeff Cronenweth make smart visual choices, stylizing the film as a flipbook of vibrantly developed prints to befit Sy's view of the world, while reminding us--by obscuring his eyes behind a magnifying glass, mirror, or fractured windshield--of Sy's disturbed myopia. Similarly, Vartan's breadwinner argues to Nielsen of the pressure of maintaining the picture-perfect home out of a magazine; by this shorthand, the viewer understands the delicateness of this family's illusory bond. Composers Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek contribute a score which effectively alternates between orchestral and ambient tones.

More importantly, Williams takes his mousy but threatening-when-cornered stock character to its fully realized conclusion, bettering his work in films like Dead Again and Insomnia. Though you might not think it possible by now, Williams fully subsumes himself into Parrish's spaced-out blank slate. Williams makes it easy to understand how Sy, in his aching social martyrdom, could adopt the avenging angel image that is the hero of the Yorkins' son, Jake. It's Williams's take on the working-class-guy-who-snaps motif, and it's a spellbinding one.

In the end, Romanek manages to take the thriller erector set and construct something distinctive. Choosing to indulge the stalker tropes, Romanek capitalizes on their gut-level potency while also feinting with them. The film's frame takes on a clever ambiguity, giving new meaning to film processing.

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