It would have been easy for Robin Williams to play Sy Parrish — Sy the Photo Guy to his customers — as the monster at the mall. Going the psycho route is a ham actor’s dream. But Williams, following the spare lead of director Mark Romanek (the video whiz bringing a striking style to the film), gives a performance that is riveting in its recessiveness and, as a consequence, truly, deeply scary.
Guy blends in with the antiseptic surroundings at the Sav-mart where he works. Quiet, anal, meticulous, he goes about his business. And Romanek goes quietly, anally, meticulously about the business of watching him. For the transparently lonely Sy, people’s photos are personal. He connects to the photos he develops, none more so than those of the Yorkins — wife Nina (Connie Nielsen), husband Will (Michael Vartan) and their nine-year-old son, Jakob (Dylan Smith). A quick, chilling shot of Sy at home — it’s as white and sterile as the mall — shows his wall covered with photos of the happy family. Then Sy comes upon a photo of Will that tips the balance of his relationship with the Yorkins. It’s explosion time, as Sy invades their house and crosses the fragile line that held his emotions in check.
Williams handles the gradations of Sy’s madness with subtle skill — we’re a long way here from the soppy excesses of Patch Adams and Bicentennial Man. Sadly, Romanek’s script settles for facile psychological profiling in the final third of the film, reducing a complex character to a trite case history of abuse and dysfunction. Until then, One Hour Photo strikes a nerve. Even when the lights of inspiration flicker in the film itself, Williams remains electrifying.