Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:16 pm 
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Mark Romanek creates a stark, scary world inhabited by a brilliant Robin Williams

'One Hour Photo' is a powerful little film whose stark perfection was laid out by writer-director Mark Romanek and secured by a courageous, edgy, disturbing performance by Robin Williams as Sy, the photo guy, the would-be uncle of the nice little family of Jake and Nina and Will Yorkin, whom he adopts through appropriating copies of their snapshots and mounding them all over a wall of his lonely apartment.

Sy is a very isolated, very unsocialized, very sad man. He not only produces beautiful copies of the snapshots he's assigned to develop and print at the SavMart photo department: they are his sole existence. We don't learn why he has picked only this one family to identify with and plaster over his wall: this is an artificial assumption of the filmmakers. He could have appropriated other people's photos and fantasized about them too. Other customers are indicated whose lives, or occupations, Sy sees into, but the Yorkins are his single-minded obsession. Other than doing his job at SavMart and eating and sleeping and nursing this obsession, Sy has no life.

What's scary about this movie is that nobody has a life, because we know even less about the others than about Sy. At times 'One Hour Photo' becomes literally a monodrama, a play happening only inside its protagonist's head. Sy knows the Yorkins only from brief conversations and from what the camera has shown him. It's all superficial, like SavMart, like suburbia, like Sy's pretense of having a life.

Another peculiarity of the story is that, sad and crippled though he is, Sy is a nice man and has only nice thoughts about Jake and Will and Nina. He admires and envies their apparently wholesome life and their lovely modernistic house, and he as much as tells them this when they come to the photo department or he runs into them. He even tells them - tossing it off almost as a joke - that he likes to think of himself as their uncle. And this is - almost - healthy. At least there's no dark concealment of even darker thoughts. When Sy approaches Jake at a boys' soccer game and offers him a toy, the scene is full of danger because it looks like pedophile stalking; but there's no indication that Sy's thoughts are anything but innocent - except that he's odd and loony to be feeding emotionally off people he barely knows. He's psychologically crippled, but has no twisted fantasies or awful impulses. He just wants to be normal and longs to enter the Yorkins' life. But this isn't possible. The situation is untenable.

So after Sy finds flaws in this little family's world just when he's been fired and has nothing to lose, the craziness and violence latent in ultra-repressed Sy have to come out.

Robin Williams' performance is riveting because the energy that has gone into it is all of implosion, of holding in, and without histrionics. Much of Sy's dialogue revolves around the Yorkins or is directed at them, so it's naturally pleasant and upbeat: Sy loves the Yorkins and he's at his best when doing something related to them. They are his life. But there's always an edge of desperation that grows from Sy's doomed efforts to ignore how empty his existence really is and how little he actually has to do with the Yorkins. Williams conveys an enormous sense of control which is reinforced by the antiseptic world the filmmakers give him to live in. This contributes to an almost unbearable mood of quiet tension that pervades the movie from first to last.

Everything in this movie is visually styled: it's as obsessive-neurotic as its protagonist. When we're in the posh suburbs with the Yorkins, all the colors are Kodak bright. Everything in Sy's special world, his corner of SavMart and his downtown apartment, is '2001' white or cyanned-out gray, and his face is either blushing (with quickly repressed embarrassment or anger) or of an unhealthy pallor. All discussion, all symbolism, is of photo imagery or of seeing or surfaces. Sy is first seen being given mug shots in a police station even more antiseptic than SavMart. He speaks in voice-over of 'snap shot' being originally a hunting term, and when he's trapped by police, his face is flattened by a bright light and he looks like a trapped animal. When he's trying to escape, he runs thorough a hall where an expert is lecturing on retinal transplants, and in his worst nightmare he imagines his eyes - which now have seen horror in the destruction of his dream - tortured and streaming blood. Perhaps Romanek's extensive background in music videos fed his obsessive pursuit of visual symbols in the movie.

The effect is one of artificiality, though that adds to the starkness of the portrait. Even the scenes of the Yorkins together unseen by Sy are just a succession of clear Kodak Moments in saturated color. Later, it appears that a climactic sequence was only Sy's imagining. The movie neutralizes some of the horror we'd come to expect. Not everything about 'One Hour Photo' seems fully alive and engaging. But Romanek shows a sense of stylistic force that's unusual. The movie is elegant like a mathematical proof. And it's not bloodless, because Robin Williams makes it come alive with his quite passionate performance. This is definitely one of the best and most powerful American movies of the year.

September 2, 2002

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