With this in mind, I pretty much expected to enjoy "One-Hour Photo." I thought it could be an challenging role for Williams, and it had been a while since I really saw him stretch himself much. I didn't really know what to expect from the film as a whole, though. I was very pleasantly surprised.
"One-Hour Photo" is one of those atmospheric films that seem to happen by chance every now and again, happy accidents of mood and observation that seem almost accidentally skillful, but most likely are good by design. The director, in a DVD commentary, expresses the fact that one of the motivating themes behind the style of the film was a fascination with the massive discount store chains that have spread rapidly across America in the last couple of decades. It's a thematic element which shows through in almost every scene, most especially in the expansive, clean shots of the store interior, and mirrored in the ordered simplicity of the decoration and furnishings in Williams' character's house. By contrast, other locations seem complex, chaotic, even messy.
Another impressive element of the film is the use of color. Early on, in a bit of narration, Williams' photo clerk describes his disdain for the work of most one-hour photo labs, criticizing them for prints which are too dark or too light, or in which the color is improperly balanced. In another scene, later, Williams gets into a loud argument with a technician about a slight blue shift in the photo processing machine he uses. Williams speaks with pride of the care he takes in getting colors perfect in his prints. This immediately made me start looking for color and light cues in the film itself, and there are many to find. One of the few places where color and light seem perfect are within the store where Williams works. The store is clean, well-lit, reds are perfectly red and blues (such as on the vests store employees wear) are perfectly blue. However, when Williams steps outside the store, light becomes too yellow or too blue. The only exceptions to this are when he is in his own home, or when he is looking into the home of the family he has been stalking. In a most striking scene, Williams is sitting out in his car, looking into their house. Everything is perfectly-lit there, and colors look right. However, outside its too dark, and blues are stronger then other shades. In the final scenes of the film, as it comes to its denouement, color becomes washed out, lights too bright, as Williams' understanding of this perfect family becomes increasingly fractured. Color plays an important part in the film. Considering that it's about a man who develops photos for a living, why would it not?
Stylistically, I enjoyed the overall visual tone of "One-Hour Photo." It's atmosphere is somehow both antiseptic and creepy. The few truly shocking moments in the film are made all the more so by their contrast to the movie overall. Like a Stanley Kubrick film, One-Hour Photo uses a strong sense of order to highlight the chaos. A dream sequence near the end of the film, in which a comparison to Kubrick is even more apt, uses this in a most remarkable and truly surprising way.
It's Williams himself who's the real treat in the film, though. This is a man who has spent much of his career either making us laugh or making us feel empathy for his character. In this role, more even than in Insomnia, he abandons all of that. Somehow, the man who was so open and likable in other films becomes a closed door. While watching One-Hour Photo, I forgot very quickly that he was Robin Williams, as he allowed his usual persona to be completely subsumed by that of the character. Even his narration sounds almost completely unlike what we are used to hearing from him. Gone is the bright, animated voice of Aladdin's genie or the warm voice employed for "What Dreams May Come." He's calm and quiet and cold, until he gets a little bit excited. Then he becomes nervous and jumpy. His pathetic attempts to be a part of something he can't attain for himself make him simultaneously pitiful and creepy. He has a distance in this film that is rare for any actor, most especially Robin Williams. Though he is in almost every scene, one is left with a feeling at the end of the film that we do not know him - perhaps that we cannot know him.
The end of the film was also a pleasant surprise, in that it goes against most established Hollywood standards of moralizing and defies expectations. Without giving any specifics away, I can say that one comes away from the film wanting to make a solid moral judgment on some of the characters, but there is no way to do so. There's no easy answers, it seems to say in the end. There's no excuse here to finally pass judgment on this or that character, only more questions, most of which will never be answered. The implicit challenge to the audience to draw their own conclusions about the characters (or even more challenging, to keep an open mind about them all), is what makes "One-Hour Photo" a great film in the final analysis.
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