From January 2002, One Hour Photo is a psychological thriller starring Robin Williams with a notable against-type performance.
A modest hit in cinemas, 20 years later it stands as a classic reminder of Williams’ brilliance as a versatile actor. And that’s why we want to celebrate its photographic intensity.
One Hour Photo and the Voyeuristic Urge to Snap Shots
Directed by Mark Romanek (most famous for his music videos with Taylor Swift and Madonna), the film premiered at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival.
One Hour Photo immediately drew in attention thanks to that riveting Robin Williams performance, reminding us how effective he could be as a villain.
He also starred in Christopher Nolan’s Insomnia in 2002, playing a different type of villain. So Williams was clearly eager to show his range as an actor around the turn of the century, which he’d been keen to show off earlier in his career in Awakenings (1990).
But 2002 saw him really go for it in villainous form.
And he is One Hour Photo—very much in the way he dominated films such as Dead Poets Society (1988) and Mrs. Doubtfire (1993). There’s his star power, but also an uncanny performance that draws viewers in.
He stars as Seymour “Sy” Parrish, an awkward photo technician at a one-hour photo booth in a supermarket chain. He’s convinced himself, seemingly out of loneliness, that his job is a vital service and takes it very seriously.
Meanwhile, he lives alone and has no friends or relationships (although he desperately craves them).
As with other great psychological thrillers (1990’s Misery, we’re looking at you), the film saps at your confidence and makes you uneasy.
This plays out as Parrish becomes overly familiar, and obsessed, with the Yorkin family who frequent the store. As such, he’s seen Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen), husband Will (Michael Vartan), and their son bonding and functioning as a happy family.
All by processing their photos, which means he’s on a casual customer-facing friendship level with the Yorkins.
But his obsession grows out of control and he begins fantasising about being part of their family unit, even manipulating circumstances to bump into Nina in another store.
So, he’s creepily growing a sense of familiarity with the Yorkins.
All the while, gradually growing a private, legal voyeurism as he preys over the many photographs he processes for the family.
That familiarity messes with his head as he pursues some sort of acceptance from the Yorkins as one of them.
But his increasingly manic behaviour leads to an altercation with a maintenance man that gets him fired from his beloved job.
He discovers, in a final batch of photos he processes whilst at work, that Will Yorkin is having an affair.
And this leads him to trap Will and his lover in a hotel room, where he emotional traumatises them by taking pictures of them whilst “going at it” (our wording, not his).
This scene is kind of a culmination of Parrish’s mental collapse, as he’s lost his humanity and become infatuated with viewing life through a camera lens. Through that, there is no acceptance from anyone—he’s merely imagining it all.
And he reveals his tormented state of mind once questioned by the police.
Not that Parrish is evil. He isn’t depicted that way. Unlike with Kathy Bates in Misery, you do sympathise with him.
But you certainly don’t want to hang out with him.
His loneliness and peculiarities have alienated him from getting the social acceptance he craves, morphing his state of mind into a fractured and fragile thing.
Given Williams’ ultimately tragic struggles with mental illness, you have to wonder how much of this he was channelling into his role.
And, well, it’s a mighty performance.
At 96 minutes One Hour Photo challenges and dismays in equal measure and it all works thanks to its lead actor.
It’s by no means perfect as it only really skirts over the issues going on. And the crescendo it builds to is more perplexing than satisfying or terrifying.
But Williams was able to craft a captivating character that unnerves to the extent you’ll remember One Hour Photo for a long time. And that’s what makes the film relevant 20 years later.
One Hour Photo’s Production
Off its $12 million budget, One Hour Photo had a solid return of $52.2 million.
Williams’ star power no doubt had a huge say in that success, although we should imagine some cinemagoers didn’t realise what they were letting themselves in for (“Let’s see the latest Robin Williams film! I bet it’s hilarious!”).
Director Romanek wrote the screenplay as well, basing the concept on the “lonely men” movies of the 1970s. Think Robert DeNiro in 1976’s Taxi Driver.
Jack Nicholson was actually approached for the lead role first, but he turned it down as he felt it essentially repeated his role in The Shining (1980).
This paved the way for Williams, who prepared for the role proper method acting style! He went off to train for several days in a photo development laboratory in California. He also dyed his hair blonde for the role to further himself from his comedic performances, plus shaved his arms and chest to have a more clinical appearance.
He was left very proud of his performance, as he overhead viewers at the Sundance Film Festival saying they’d forgotten it was him within 15 minutes.
Williams won a Saturn Award for Best Actor, but was snubbed by the Oscars (possibly as he’d already won in 1997 for Good Will Hunting, anyway).