Mark Romanek's under-appreciated One Hour Photo came about during a transition period in the mainstream photography scene, a point addressed early on in the film. Before the age of digital cameras -- where people take thousands of shots nobody ever sees, duplicate them at home, and wipe them away with a few clicks -- snapshots either needed to be processed in a dark room or entrusted with a lab for developing. That meant a person doing the developing would see , and possible remember, every single candid shot and glimpse at one's private affairs. Romanek saw that suspicion as an opportunity, framed in a sterile department store and centered on the seeming trustworthy clerk whom you'd give those rolls of memories. Could that person have been Sy Parrish (Robin Williams), the bespectacled, clean-cut employee who obsesses over a repeat-customer family? The strength in Romanek's thriller, a comment on blind trust and valuing the family dynamic, lies in how eerily possible that might be.
Should it be reassuring or alarming that the first image of Sy is of his in-custody interrogation? That's the direction Romanek takes the audience, down the path of misgiving from the moment Sy offers his perspective on his time as a SavMart photo-lab manager, a job he takes very seriously; he calibrates and measures prints with the utmost care, diligently remembering repeat shoppers. The most important of all his customers, though, is the Yorkin family: an unpretentiously beautiful mother, Nina (Connie Nielsen, The Devil's Advocate); the busy bread-winner father, Will (Michael Vartan, Alias); and their young, caring son, Jake (Dylan Smith). Sy knows these people in ways most don't, from memorizing their address and the size of their home to the idyllic appearance of their domestic situation, adorned with birthday parties and little-league games. What's also shown, though, are the moments when he returns to his home, a sparse apartment full of the Yorkin's photographs.
Romanek could've easily forced Sy into a caricature of a stalker or an unashamedly disturbed villain, but instead he takes a more complex route: he's interested in bringing this man as close to "normal" as the thriller's setting and purposes will allow, until the situation no longer allows it. Constant narration -- Sy's interrogation -- beckons the audience into the space of his mind, revealing his tolerant and often rewarding outlook on his customers. When he discusses unsavory people, they're neutral observations with a twang of judgment, not unlike the musings of regular Joes. When he discusses the family dynamic, his outlook is almost admirably idealistic, as if he only knows of the families depicted in perfect photos. Navigating the intricacy of his mind becomes a sharp, disturbing experience as the knowledge of his police custody crosses our minds, and Romanek plays with that idea as Sy uses his job to cross boundaries in ways the general public would rather not consider. He's the worst kind of monster: the one you really couldn't foresee as being one.
One Hour Photo's success, both in terms of intensity and dramatic potency, hinges on the utterly chilling performance from Robin Williams. While Good Will Hunting and Insomnia unveiled a comeback in his serious dramatic side, presenting him as physically intimidating and apt at carrying a dark past, Sy takes his talent in a more cunning, sinister direction than previously seen from the animated comedic actor. From behind large-framed glasses and under a peculiar blonde haircut, the intense eyes that Williams gives the photo-lab manager hide a disturbed man with a void in his life. The psychosis and obsession he conveys through nuanced facial reactions can be pretty remarkable, where the stillness in his gazes and the calmness in his voice often send chills down the spine when he interacts with families, co-workers, and children. The performances around him create a "safe" mid-sized town atmosphere -- Connie Nielsen's honest warmth lures in our attention as she drops off film and eats at a mall -- proving ideal for Sy's under-the-radar fixation.
Romanek explores a mesmerizing visual tone that becomes crucial as we're making heads and tails of Sy's mind, where the cinematography of Jeff Cronenweth (Fight Club and The Social Network) switches between sterile, void sparseness and multihued vivacity for some clever jarring effects. He bathes scenes in the Yorkin's lush upper-scale home with overbearingly warm oranges and browns, emphasizing a false sense of safety and perfection, while the stark-white aisles of SavMart almost convey a sense of blinding clarity through the eyes of Sy. The film very much filters through his point-of-view as his narration guides the audience within his psychosis, where the few impartial glimpses at his life blow the notion of privacy open by a mosaic of photos on his apartment's wall. Backed by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek's pulsating, haunting score, this is a striking sensory experience that lulls the audience into a bizarre combo of sensations between ill-omened fear and cautious sympathy.
That's the nature of a beast like One Hour Photo, a Hitchcock-esque exploration of the underbelly of the mundane ad the family dynamic, not unlike a twisted combination of Cape Fear and American Beauty. Romanek's film is, admittedly, far more interesting during Sy's descent into mania than when he's finally pushed over the edge though, driven by circumstances that come across more as overstated developments to elevate suspense instead of a natural progression of his mental instability. Romanek undeniably goes for bizarre shock value as his punctuation, which waters down the organic human properties that he's worked so hard to develop. Yet, even when he takes Sy into the world of the truly demented, the reason he's locked in cuffs and answering questions, Robin Williams and Mark Romanek still generates a disturbingly authentic perspective on idealistic relativism, and how the mind of "The Photo Guy" who yearns for the family in those snapshots is truly calibrated. Sy isn't the guy who processed your rolls of film, but it makes you wonder who that person really was.
The attention to design detail in Fox's Blu-ray presentation of One Hour Photo, a special edition that's been in the pipes for somewhere close to a decade, is rather impressive. Instead of reusing the old cover design, a new one featuring Williams bathed in red light now adorns a fine matte slipcase -- while a negative version covers the back. These designs are replicated onto the physical cover artwork as well, while the disc design uses a still from the film of the photo-lab chemicals. Very appealing work.
Video and Audio:
One Hour Photo's cinematography was captured on 35mm film through Panavision Panaflex Cameras, wielded by a photographer and guided by a director who are very keen on visual tempo. You can still relish some of that experience here in the photography's natural beauty, from plays on depth-of-field to splashes of vibrant color, but Fox's 1.85:1-framed 1080p AVC treatment doesn't do proper justice to this diligently-composed film. Mostly, it's because this has evidently been derived from an older, less-than-optimal master, hampered by sporadic frame jittering, hefty grain presentation, washed-out contrast, and flecks of print damage that can be spotted throughout. And once you cross those speedbumps, it's still only a middle-of-the-road HD treatment, frequently revealing issues that make it appear older than it should: not a lot of fine detail can be found within its hazy, harsh, flat appearance and skin tones are emptier than they should be. It has moments, sure -- close-ups and clothing textures are occasionally commendable, and the color palette really does look sharp at times -- but they're brought down by other issues. This can look better, and more stable.
The 5.1 Master Audio track makes up for some of the issues with the visual transfer, but we're not dealing with a perfect audio treatment, either. Small atmospheric elements flex a bit of the treatment's muscle, such as the film being sliced and the shutter of a camera, while effects like announcements over the SavMart's PA system make an effort at creating a dynamic surround stage. Also, the aggressive pulses and delicate twang of eeriness in the music engages the surround channels and lower-end boom more frequently than most of the sound effects. Most of the activity is on the front-end though, and the dialogue rarely goes beyond sounding mediocre and hollow; calmer line delivery mostly sounds fine, but elevated voices are occasionally raspy. The nuance in the voice recordings isn't terribly satisfying, only suitable. For the most part, One Hour Photo's DTS-HD track creeps across the finish line without much issue, even satisfying on occasion with the score and ambience. Spanish, French, and German language tracks are also available, along with optional English, Spanish, and German subs.
Carried over from the 2003 DVD presentation of One Hour Photo, the Feature Commentary with Mark Romanek and Robin Williams offers a surprisingly low-key, insightful, and legitimately amusing analysis of the film. Progressing with scene by scene rhythm, they discuss many of the techniques considered and implemented in the film: an arty introduction that Romanek ultimately scrapped due to the advice of a prominent filmmaker, the selection of a fortune-cookie fortune that works with a scene, and how they were very much aware of the way audiences perceived Robin Williams as a "louder" presence than Sy Parrish. Romanek also discusses his perspective on making the film an elevated-reality portrait of big-box stores and the family dynamic, hoping he rides a balance between cartoon and satire. They both offer keen insights in a conversational tone, where Romanek actively tries to not aggrandize himself and Williams restrains his boisterousness (he cuts loose a bit at the end), and it comes together into an excellent, engaging track.
The rest of the supplements are separated into three familiar divisions: Pre-Production, Production, and Post-Production. The Pre-Production wing includes a collection of odds and ends about the early conceptualization of the film, from a lengthy series of hand-drawn Storyboards (18:04 to Play All) to an arrangement of four Cast Rehearsals (SD) -- including a behind-the-scenes glimpse at Robin Williams breaking through young actor Dylan Smith's introversion through a loud-sound activity , as well as a straight-faced rehearsal between comedians Williams and Gary Cole. There's also a Location/Tech Scouting (SD) division that shows Romanek's process in discovering the spots across LA that he'd use in the film, as well as how he and his crew employed stand-ins to test the viability of each location. All these are handled in raw, unpretentious stretches of footage that offer a sharp glimpse into Romanek's process.
The Production wing doesn't have as many components, but it contains arguably the most significant and crucial features of the bunch. Lensing One Hour Photo (25:33, SD/HD mix) centers on narration from the cast and crew as behind-the-scenes shots follow the conditions under how the film was captured. Romanek discusses Williams' dedication and affinity with the character, more than he could with the actor next to him during the commentary, as well as his decision to cast "idealized actors" for the family parts, while Robin Williams also steps into the narration as he elucidates his rationale for being in the film. The discussion focuses more on Romanek's technique after that, and his attentiveness to detail and planning. There's also a more generic Cinemax Featurette (13:44, SD), including interviews with Romanek, Williams, and Connie Nielsen as they discuss the making-of process in a general fashion.
The Post-Production section serves as a bit of a catch-all for the rest of the special features, everything that applies to the period after the film was released. That includes: a Main Title Test (1:24, SD) that features an arrangement of inverse-color photos and other graphical elements; glimpses at the layered components of Sy's Nightmare Elements (:38, SD); as well as three TV Spots, a Theatrical Trailer (2:14, HD), and a pretty cool glimpse at drastically different promotional art in Poster Explorations. There are two substantive features available here, as well. One is a Charlie Rose Show Interview (35: 57, SD) that features Mark Romanek and a trimmer, more vibrant Robin Williams, and those that have seen interviews with Charlie Rose know what to expect: a mix of humor and straight-faced insight. The other is a Sundance Channel: Anatomy of a Scene (27:52, SD) exploration that, while hitting on general assembly topics, mostly centers on the scene between Sy and father Will Yorkin in the SavMart.
Note: While this review indicates that certain features are in standard definition (SD), none of the features restricted access to the pop-up menu.
An imperfect but vastly under-appreciated dramatic thriller, Mark Romanek's One Hour Photo relishes the opportunity to play with the audience's grasp on trust, family value, and the personal nature of photographs -- and how envy affects them all. This results in complex psychological suspense that lures us into the mind of Sy, an unassuming photo-lab manager with an unhealthy fixation on a family he essentially wishes were his. While Romanek's shrewd direction and flair for visual provocation set the mood, it's hard to imagine anyone but the stocky, bespectacled, blonde-haired Robin Williams filling his shoes in one of his most restrained and unsettling performances. It goes a little too bonkers at the end (though not without purpose), but the overall production holds up as an efficiently unsettling, convincing piece of work with a twisted gray-area perspective.
Fox's Blu-ray arrives in a snazzy package with a slew of special features both old and new, and the ability to have these features available with a high-definition rendering of the film can't help but earn it a mild Recommendation. However, One Hour Photo really should have received a more diligent audiovisual treatment than this, sporting an unstable, flat transfer that could use another go-around. Here's hoping Fox might be willing to revisit this title at some point, because I'd love to give a higher stamp of approval on a Blu-ray treatment of this often overlooked thriller.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site