A picture tells a thousand words. In a world obsessed with appearances and our image, we place a lot of emphasis on the importance of a photo. One Hour Photo (2002) deals with the pursuit for the perfect image, and the need to appear important to the outside world. The film follows Sy Parrish (Robin Williams), a one hour photo technician who appears harmless, but has actually been stalking a young suburban family for nearly ten years: the Yorkins.
Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen) has been taking the family photos to the SavMart one hour photo booth. To which Sy has made himself copies of all photos, posting them as a collage on his apartment wall. And also uses them to live vicariously through the Yorkins. It seems innocent enough, if not a little bit creepy, but we feel sympathy for Sy, who lives alone in an almost bare, minimalist apartment.
However, the tone of the film shifts, becoming something a lot more sinister, and disturbing. When Sy learns some ugly truth about the family, and eventually snaps, igniting a situation that threatens the safety of others.
The film begins with a camera pointed at us, someone is taking our picture. This is the point of view of Sy, and already we feel uncomfortable forced to be the focus of attention. The camera flashes, and we are engulfed in white light before witnessing the digital image of Sy appearing on a computer monitor. His facial expression is grim and defeated. His hair is cropped short and bleached. He wears big square glasses that are too big for his face. And his clothes are dull, with a white shirt that blends into the background.
The usual smiling face of Robin Williams has now been replaced with a blank, expressionless stare, that chills us to the bone. It just feels so unnatural and out-of-place, especially after growing up with the likes of Williams being the ‘funny man’, who makes us laugh with his larger than life performances.
We assume that Sy is a criminal, he looks the type of man who could easily be the secret serial killer living next door. He must be a criminal if he is going through this procedure. With his pasty white skin, odd mannerisms, and strange, forced friendly behaviour, we could assume that Sy is a sociopath who is play acting being a functioning member of society. Yet by the conclusion of the film, even though Sy has indeed committed a crime. We cannot help but feel pity for him.
This is the power of Williams’ performance, because he never makes Sy appear too loathsome, or too over dramatic. Sy is the classic example of one of these fragile creatures who snaps, and is pushed to their limits. As Sy, is socially awkward outsider, he is left unsupported by those around him, which shows us just how broken we are as a society. Sy doesn’t deserve punishment, but rather help and empathy. I doubt another actor would have been able to convey this across to the audience as well as Williams does, with his stunning, and highly underrated performance.
We learn a lot about the character of Sy, when he is alone. The scenes set in his apartment reveal so much about this character’s psychology, mental and emotional state. Williams’ body language is rigid and robotic, he isn’t comfortable in his own home, and perhaps that’s an indication of his fear to be alone with his own thoughts? The use of colour (or rather the lack of colour) is used to great effect here. The walls are white, the furniture is white, and Sy’s clothes are white and grey.
White is a cool colour, cold and depressing. It represents Sy as this blank slate, isolated, and cut off from the world. Sy’s apartment looks like a prison cell, perhaps an indication of what is to come, but also represents how Sy is trapped in his own world or rather trapped by his past. The use of white also reinforces Sy’s ability to blend in with the outside world, without attracting attention. He has become complacent to this world because he cannot be harmed in it, again this shows how the past trauma that Sy has endured has deeply scarred him. White is the colour of innocence, but Sy’s innocence was taken from him, and this led him to become a broken man.
Sy’s interactions with the Yorkins give us the Williams’ we all know and love, but it feels dstracting, and we know that it’s fake. It is even more impactful when we realise that Williams’ suffered from depression (which led to his death), and that often those who suffer depression will put on a ‘brave face’ whilst in public. There is one moment where Sy tries to reach out to Nina, perhaps trying to connect to her as he sees another wounded creature. This scene takes place in a mall where he ‘happens’ to bump into her, their exchange is pleasant enough, with Williams wearing a large smile on his face, but his smile is too wide, too forced. When Nina goes to leave, Sy takes out a book called ‘Path to Love’ (a self help book of sorts), they discuss the book, and Sy reads a section about fear: The thing we fear the most, have already happened to us. This is Sy trying to communicate with someone about his fear, his past and his situation. He has already endured his fear, being betrayed by someone he loved, that he is now caught in this cycle of needing love but being fearful about it, therefore he tries to control people, forcing them to love him by his terms.
Sy’s story is about a man struggling to control his world, but being helpless. Many of those who suffer from depression often find themselves feeling a lack of control over their lives. And I get the impression that Williams was bringing his own experience into this role, a method acting in a way.
What Sy wants is something that all human beings need, and that is a family to belong to. Often depression individuals require the support of loved ones, who come in the form of a family (either biological or spiritual), and as Sy is clearly depressed, it only seems normal that this is what he needs. Sy believes that by belonging to a family, this could somehow fix the past. He doesn’t want to replace anyone, in fact he confesses that he wants to be an uncle, but of course he forcing himself onto the Yorkins.
Williams gives another extraordinary showcase of his talent, during a scene that depicts Sy’s delusional fantasy life as he walks into the Yorkin’s home while they are out, and acts like he lives there himself. When the Yorkin’s do arrive home and catch Sy in the act, they are not frightened by him, but instead treat him like he is a part of the family. Of course this is just a meer fantasy, by someone who is clearly mentally unsound, but it helps us see what Sy really desires, and what he feels he should have.
In this one scene, it is established that Sy has no social stills at all, and also how he is living in a fantasy that even he knowns he can never have. Again, this shows Williams’ ability to switch from one mood to another, and its amazing to watch how he can morph into this smiling, cheerful man who appears not to have a single care in the world.
One Hour Photo remains one of my favourite film starring Robin Williams. It plays against the character that he had built up during the 90s, and shows his talent as a serious actor, and not just the jolly clown. The character of Sy is made so memorable, because it is Robin Williams in the role, playing the loser and the loner, and showing us a vulnerable side to Williams as a person.
I believe that this role came from a deeply personal place within Williams, which gives the film an even more tragic feel to it. This is truly raw, authentic performance leads us to both fear and pity the character of Sy. Williams’ performance as Sy Parrish is one of the most authentic performances ever put on-screen in my opinion. All Sy wanted was to be noticed for who he was, and I wonder whether Williams felt the same.