One Hour Photo (2002)

D: Mark Romanek
S: Robin Williams

Effective low-key thriller centred on a creepy performance by Robin Williams as an obsessive photolab developer who envisions himself part of the lives of a suburban family which in spite of surface perfections is wracked with hidden (and unphotographed) tensions. Writer/director Mark Romanek has delivered a fairly thoughtful rumination on the nature of photographic representation and the parallax relationship between physical and cognitive perception. While he does nothing with it that Hitchcock didn't do in Rear Window, it has been a while since anyone has done it this well. Romanek brings a distinctive visual style to the film, mostly defined by its deliberately washed-out colour palette and emphasis on clean lines and clearly delineated spaces. In it he places the equally anaemic figure of Williams himself, made over with pale, wispy hair, chalky clean skin and a polite, fastidious manner. Cinematically reliant therefore on a correlation between the perceptual spaces of the central character and the audience's perception of the world at large seen in similar terms, Romanek plays the usual dangerous games with empathy and identification that this genre throws up. He manages them responsibly, though a belated psychological justification for Williams' behaviour feels a little forced.

The film begins with a monotone voiceover by Williams on the subject of the selective nature of family photographs. No one ever photographs the sad moments, he observes, and we are immediately drawn into a film with heightened thematic awareness of the divergence between lived and imagined reality. Sequences depicting the process of developing and printing photographs (and, in particular, Williams' obsessive attention to detail and devotion to 'quality') call to mind early cineaste's fascination with the apparatus of cinema itself, and Romanek's drawing attention to this similar process begs the question of just how much of this the ordinary cinemagoer is meant to engage with. Certainly the film is richer than the average thriller on this level of cinematic savvyness, but really it is the generic mechanics to which most people will respond.

Luckily, Romanek's own meticulousness pays off on this level. The film is carefully paced and makes excellent use of ordinary spaces to create tension and unease in everyday situations. Scenes of Williams walking the aisles of the supermarket are often loaded with a sense of suspense which has nothing to do with the anticipation of shock. The whole film works more on the level of a sustained build-up to inevitable confrontation. There is a constant lurking slow burn of narrative and characterisation which allows a film in which very little actually happens to become ever more intense. There is a definite sense of relief when the climax eventually comes, and though the film is good enough not to quite let the audience off the hook with generic catharsis, its Psycho-type 'explanation' is not entirely satisfying.

Following his equally attention-getting performance in Insomnia, Williams is again hypnotic in a villainous role. This character is less outwardly expressive than the previous one, requiring the actor to appear even more physically repressed than is normal for a 'serious' Williams part. He responds well to the various challenges of the role, which is artfully blended with the film on the whole to increase the intensity of the characterisation. There is no Al Pacino here to add greater thespian depth to the proceedings this time though. This tips the film a little too much towards a star vehicle, inviting audiences to think of it less as a distinctive work of cinema than as a movie in which a comic actor plays a psycho. Again though, Romanek's visual style is strong enough to make the film interesting as a cinematic test, and this compensates for what might otherwise seem like gimmicky casting.

One Hour Photo is a fairly rewarding little movie which should please genre fans with a little more patience than your average stalk 'n' slash fan. There is a lot of stalk, much of it taking place on a removed level not conducive to quick and cheap fans, but there is very little slash indeed. The only bloody scene in fact seems largely unnecessary, although it does involve the eyes, another signal to those who care to receive it than Romanek is well aware of the many levels on which his script is making its points about vision and the visual. Worth a look.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.