“Photo” is being billed as a thriller to get people into the theaters; it is much smarter than that. Actually, it is a film about idealism versus reality.
Robin Williams plays Sy, a sad, lonely man who works as a film processor in a large department store. Sy’s job seems mundane and repetitious, but not for Sy. He views his job as very important—so important that he becomes almost violently upset when the processing machine is even a tiny bit off its perfect color settings. This is just one of Sy’s many hang-ups.
Williams plays Sy brilliantly, and there is already talk about him finally receiving the Best Actor Oscar he deserved for “Good Morning Vietnam.” Beyond Williams’ brilliant performance, “Photo” also stands out for the smart, often humorous, always disturbing screenplay. We feel both pity and fear for this man as he moves down a path that seems destined for destruction.
Director-screenwriter Mark Romanek shows us just enough of the film development process and offers some clever insights about the world of amateur photography through the insightful narration Sy shares with the audience.
The third act of the film seems anticlimactic, though. Getting to know Sy, and watching the choices he makes, is more interesting than the payoff of those choices, or the explanation for why he does what he does. But none of that is enough to detract much from the strengths of this film.
“Photo” is being billed as a thriller to get people into the theaters; it is much smarter than that. Actually, it is a film about idealism versus reality. Sy himself says it in the quote above. People take photos of the moments they want to remember. How many people in the future, judging the lives of families today only by their photos, would think this was the time of perfect existence?
In 1998, a great film, “Pleasantville,” dealt with the idealism of 1950s sitcoms. That film had the courage to say that those families and that world—free of racial strife, marital problems and teenage rebellion—only existed in TV fiction.”One Hour Photo” is a film about the “perfect family” and discovering that such a family exists only in one’s mind.
In a time when “family values” continues to be a political slogan, Sy is a character worth pondering, specifically because he is someone who believes in the ideal family. He is ready to judge and condemn anyone who shatters his ideals. Several characters make immoral choices in “One Hour Photo,” but does that justify how Sy eventually acts? Most, if not everyone who sees this film, would without hesitation say “no.”
So the film seems to ask, “If we truly value the ‘ideal family,’ how far should we go to guarantee it exists?” If what Sy does is too far—comparable to acts such as bombing abortion clinics—what of covenant marriage laws requiring counseling before couples can leave a bad relationship? How far is not too far when the goal is the “ideal family”?
“One Hour Photo” works so well because, though Sy is dangerous and insane, the audience wants to agree with him. One wants this family to be perfect, and those who shatter the ideal get what they deserve. That’s fine for psychological thrillers, but it will never lead to good policy.
Society’s desire for strong families will never come through force—only through free choice, commitment and love.
Roger Thomas is pastor of Northeast Baptist Church in Atlanta.
MPAA Rating: R for sexual content and language
Director: Mark Romanek
Writer: Mark Romanek
Cast: Sy Parrish: Robin Williams; Nina Yorkin: Connie Nielsen; Will Yorkin: Michael Vartan; Bill Owens: Gary Cole; Jake Yorkin: Dylan Smith; Det. Van Der Zee: Eriq LaSalle; Maya Burson: Erin Daniels.