“No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget.” It may have been 20 years since we were treated to those wise words, courtesy of an eerie Robin Williams voiceover, but now, in a world of social media, Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo couldn’t feel more relevant. In what was one of Williams’ most standout performances, he plays Seymour “Sy” Parrish, who works as a photo technician at the local department store. Living a solitary existence, we see a man who is yearning for more in life and soon starts to become obsessed with a woman named Nina (Connie Nielsen), and her family photos over the years. Plastering their family snaps all over his wall at home, his preoccupation with their “perfect” suburban life takes on an increasingly dangerous form. However, things turn extremely dark when Sy discovers Nina’s husband, Will (Michael Vartan), is having an affair. In an instant, this seemingly perfect image with which he has become enamored is shattered, triggering traumas from his own past, and ultimately leading to a revenge-driven breakdown.
Coming out in 2002, this was a time when the main people seeing snippets into your life were those nearest and dearest, and of course, your local photo technician. This meant that One Hour Photo was nothing more than a disturbing thriller (an extremely well-executed one at that). This movie may have simply deterred you from getting those family pics printed for a while, but there was certainly a sense of distance to the air of creepiness it exuded. Revisiting this film in 2022 is something far more harrowing. Now, it serves as a grim warning about the time we live in. In a world where the line between public and private lives is severely blurred, and even strangers have access to the windows of our lives, an increasing number of problems are arising.
With the vast number of avenues for photo sharing, getting sucked into so-called perfection online is an everyday danger, and, in turn, is fueling a wave of mental health issues. Sy’s journey in the movie may start the same as anyone who is scrolling through their social media feed and feeling those pangs of envy. However, this film is a stark reminder of the risks of idolizing the unknown. When Sy looks at the Yorkin’s family pictures, he sees a serene contentedness. What he doesn’t see are the fights behind closed doors. He doesn’t see a husband who is emotionally neglecting his wife and son. He doesn’t see a man who is only there for those memories that can be snapped in pictures. And that’s exactly where the danger lies.
“Someone looking through our photo album would conclude that we led a joyous, leisurely existence,” is one of the opening lines of voiceover in the movie and one that truly sets the tone for the events of the film. Sy lets his lack of any true knowledge about the family get the better of his own mental health. All he sees when he looks at their smiling faces on the printouts is everything he doesn’t have, leading him down a path of comparison that could never end well. However, we see the true extent of his obsession with one of his daydreams. Envisioning himself entering the Yorkin’s home, using their bathroom, watching their TV, and basically living their life, it is clear that this family’s world is consuming his brain, and his life. Although affectionately known to the Yorkins as “Sy, the photo guy,” this is a man who is harboring some darker truths. Trying to escape his own past, he frequently goes to great lengths to get closer to them, including giving away a free camera as a birthday gift, which later contributes to him getting fired from his job.
But one of the most thought-provoking scenes in the movie comes after he places Will’s affair photos into Nina’s pack of family photos. Sitting outside their house, camera in hand, he waits for the expected rage-fueled argument between the couple. However, when it doesn’t arrive, we see that capturing that moment of imperfection just can’t be done, highlighting the quote at the beginning of this article; memories that we want to forget are harder to capture. It goes to show that a lot of what people see in photos can either be fully or partially fabricated and often aren’t the real representation of the true life they are living. This is also the scene that jumpstarts a disturbing series of events. Desperate to make this man pay for not appreciating what he had, he follows him and his lover to a hotel. At knifepoint, he forces entry into the room and begins a series of degrading and humiliating demands, something we soon find out is actually a deeply rooted need for revenge on his own father, who, it seems, abused him as a child.
While the theme of photos and the weight put upon them is central to the plot, the polar opposite photos that begin and end the movie are particularly prominent. The beginning scene shows Sy at the police station getting the infamous mug shot taken before the movie goes back in time, while the ending sees an imagined photo of Sy and the Yorkins, smiles plastered on their faces. Each of these represents two of the most distinctive human conditions, despair, and happiness, and perfectly highlight Sy’s mental instability.
Looking back on One Hour Photo from the social media landscape of today, it seems this movie foresaw many of the dangers associated with living a life online. Everything that made the movie chilling can now be felt on a much grander scale. Sy is no longer just the representation of one man in a blacked-out room developing a roll of film, he is the representation of anyone that could succumb to the dangers of idolizing someone’s so-called perfect life online. What was, at the time, an intriguing and unique thriller can now be seen as an uncomfortable mirror into the all too real dangers lurking amidst this photo-sharing world.
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