One Hour Photo is part of an intriguing group of films that arrived at roughly the same time. Along with About Schmidt (2002) and The Good Girl (2002), it takes a long, hard look at the architecture of workaday America: shopping malls, diners, gas stations.
The eye brought to bear on this suburban landscape is very painterly, and the dramatic attitude towards the milieu is not exactly satirical (which would be the easy option), but pitched somewhere between wry humour and deep melancholy.
We have not seen American cinema look at ordinary people and their environments in quite this way since the milestones of the early '70s like Five Easy Pieces (1970) and Badlands (1973).
Mark Romanek, the writer-director of One Hour Photo, pays his respects to these and other monuments in cinema history. Like the sad heroes of Antonioni's Blow Up (1966) and Coppola's The Conversation (1974), the central character, Seymour (Robin Williams), is a dysfunctional loner who has a feverish but mediated relation to reality.
Seymour falls in love with the Yorkin family, Nina (Connie Nielsen), Will (Michael Vartan) and young Jakob (Dylan Smith), through their domestic snapshots – to which he has privileged and unlimited access in his job at a one-hour-photo shop. If that sounds to you like the premise for a suspense-thriller – indeed, the same plot device figures in Red Dragon (2002) – then One Hour Photo may disappoint or frustrate you, for its intentions are elsewhere.
Romanek is interested in character, environment and atmosphere. Signing only his second feature after Static (1985), he is especially determined to establish a strong, coherent, filmic style. On this level, One Hour Photo is a complete success. The use of the white vistas of the mall, exactly framed by cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth and edited to the creepy musical score by Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Hell (of Run Lola Run  fame), is breathtaking.
But the film achieves more than a simple, stylish effect. Seymour's pedantic and obsessive ways with the images he handles evoke what the British critic Victor Perkins (in his BFI Classic book on The Magnificent Ambersons) calls a "pathos of the photographic".
Seymour's haunting reflections in voice-over narration on the meaning of photography undoubtedly spring from a slow-boiling madness but are also, in their strange way, absorbing and even sympathetic. Williams gives the finest, most controlled and carefully modulated performance of his career in this unforgettable role.
Again like About Schmidt and The Good Girl, One Hour Photo is reminiscent of the ambitious American cinema of the early '70s in its artful reluctance to drive the story forwards. When, finally, the complications set in, Romanek deliberately does not twist his tale into a bloody tale of a psycho driven to attack the nuclear family unit he so desperately craves – like so many thrillers in the vein of The Stepfather (1987) or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992).
Instead, the film takes a curious turn into a complex morality tale, with Seymour both perversely revelling in and righteously recoiling from the uncomfortable truths he uncovers. With this development, One Hour Photo loses its initial, meditative aura, but none the less manages to hold us in its disquieting grip.
© Adrian Martin February 2003