Monday, November 17, 2003

One Hour Photo
Review by Sombrero Grande

I remember Gary Cole best from his hilarious portrayal of the asshole boss Bill Lumberg in Mike Judge’s Office Space. In One Hour Photo he again plays a boss, again named Bill, but it’s a whole different ballpark this time. At first I kept expecting him to say something like, “Sy…what’s happening? Do you have those TPS reports ready?” The same thing pretty much went for Robin Williams, who I kept expecting to see break into a few dozen different voices like he has in nearly every other movie I’ve seen him in. A short ways into the movie, however, I found I had grown accustomed to Cole’s and Williams’ more serious portrayals and there was no confusion for the rest of the film.

But there is the question: why go with comedic actors like these for such a serious and tense thriller? I can’t really imagine how writer/director Mark Romanek came to these casting decisions; all I can say is that they work. Williams is great. His performance is very subtle, especially compared to the over-the-top stuff he’s usually known for. He plays Sy “the Photo Guy,” a devoted, obsessive and mentally disturbed employee at the photo developing section of Sav-Mart who’s whole life seems to revolve around two things: creating perfect picture prints for his customers, and the seemingly Rockwellesque lives of one customer’s family in particular. The really wonderful thing about Williams’ performance is that at times we feel total empathy for Sy, and then the next minute we’re shocked, thinking, “I can’t believe he’s doing THAT!” The result is that we care about him at the same time we’re horrified by his actions. We know from the opening scene of the movie that he eventually gets apprehended by the police, but as the movie progresses I felt myself wanting to see him get away with it. I cared about this disturbed and scary individual. THAT’S a feat!

It’s this mix of empathy and horror that makes him so engaging, even in the quietest moments of the film. It’s like Hitchcock’s idea where you take a bomb and place it next to two people having a conversation, whatever they say can be inane and uninteresting, but the fact that there’s a ticking bomb there absolutely electrifies each syllable. Sy is the walking bomb in this film. You never have any idea of when he’s going to go off or what will happen when he does. The tension is real here. The director does a masterful job near the end of the film, giving the audience only tiny scraps of information and taking as long as possible to reveal “what happened” while still driving the action and characters forward.

I’m a sucker for whenever directors experiment and have some fun with filmic gestures--storytelling devices you can only use in cinema (which is why I dig Moulin Rouge! as much as I do)--and in One Hour Photo, Romanek has a fun filmic play on photo developing. Near the beginning of the movie we learn from Sy all about his devotion to quality photo prints through his narration of the developing and printing process. We witness photo paper being bombarded with red light, green light, blue light, et cetera, as an image starts to form. There are several scenes in the film that are lit entirely in red or green or blue, et cetera, that seem to mirror the developing process of the photos. Notice how when we first see Sy in the kitchen of his apartment it’s nearly completely white; it’s like a blank sheet of photo paper. As he runs, walks and moves through the red, green and blue-lighted spaces throughout the rest of the film, it’s like HE’S being developed. This kind of stuff is great fun for film freaks like moi and shows that there’s a competent captain at the helm of the vessel.

In a nutshell, One Hour Photo is a quiet and very clever thriller that’s truly tense.


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