Montreal Film Journal


“No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget.” Hence, if you only knew someone’s life through his family photos, you’d probably assume he had it all. SavMart photo processor Seymour Parrish (Robin Williams) is aware of this, but he still can’t help it: when he looks at the pictures the Yorkins bring to get developed, he desperately envies their life. Their beautiful house, their Mercedes, handsome little Jake, sunny vacations, joyful Christmas eves...

And what does he have? A lousy job in an overly bright department store, a crummy little apartment with no one but a hamster to come home to... Next to nothing. Even when he looks at himself, in himself, he sees only emptiness, a whole darn heap of painful emptiness. And yet he stays nice and polite, “Thank you for shopping at SavMart”, and always with the smile... We wouldn’t want our customers to be distracted from buying sweatshop-made junk, now would we?

“One Hour Photo” is the near-brilliant feature film debut of Mark Romanek, who’s directed a lot of great looking music videos in the past, notably Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” and “The Perfect Drug”, Michael Jackson’s “Scream” and Beck’s “Devil’s Haircut”. Here we can still sense the touch of a skilled visual artist, crafting everything with extreme precision, be it shot composition, the use of color or editing. Basically, Romanek is as meticulous as Robin Williams’ character. Speaking of which, Williams offers a wonderfully subdued performance, a bit like he did in last spring’s Insomnia but losing himself in the part even more. He plays Seymour like a pleasant, quiet man... Too pleasant, too quiet, to the point where it becomes creepy... Yet you can’t quite dismiss him as a weirdo, you somehow still feel for this lonely, sad little man. In this regard, he’s like Tom in The Talented Mr. Ripley, who’d also rather “be a fake somebody than a real nobody”.

The thing I liked the most about the film, though, is the music by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek (who also scored Run Lola Run). It’s easily the best film score I’ve heard all year, amazingly effective at setting moods without calling attention to it. The visuals and Williams’ performance, strong as they are, wouldn’t have nearly the same impact if it wasn’t for the sounds that accompany them. Writing about music is like dancing about architecture, but I’ll try. Think of a blend of industrial and techno, but really really slowed down, and add strings, and bells... various loops and low beats. It’s truly a brilliant piece of music.

My one problem with the film is that as artistically achieved as it is, it lacks something in the storytelling. Romanek the writer is obviously more interested in images than words, which is true to the subject matter, and it’s nice that he’d leave so much unsaid, going for impressions instead of explanations... Yet then the movie ends and you’re like, “Huh.” So there’s this sad man... and he develops a fixation on the Yorkins... the picture perfect family he never had, right. And you’ve got all this photography symbolism... “I was here, I existed, I was young, I was happy... And someone cared enough about me to take my picture.” Then something bad happens... And the film’s over. Again, “Huh.”

There are too many great things about “One Hour Photo” not to recommend it, but part of me wishes there’d been some sort of decipherable payoff.