As shown in the recent "Insomnia," there's no more frightening a sight in modern cinema than that of Robin Williams staring silently toward the horizon, his mind stuck in who-knows-what groove of sick preoccupation. Following that gaze to its psychological ground zero is the trajectory of "One Hour Photo," an imperfectly plotted but terrifically eerie thriller that turns on Williams' haunting performance as a voyeuristic photo developer.
Williams' Sy Parrish is a perfect match with the SavMart retail chain, his employer of 11 years. Dressed in a sterile blue-and-white uniform and standing behind the counter of the store's photo lab, he seems utterly in sync with the deathly stillness of the generic surrounding decor. (Signage written entirely in lower-case letters is the coup de grâce of Tom Foden's astute production design.) Even Parrish's fashion-backward eyeglasses might have come from a rack in the SavMart pharmacy. This operation, we suspect, doesn't merely welcome the human beings who pass through its doors -- it swallows them.
Just as the store insinuates itself upon its customers as a dear old friend, Parrish entertains similar fantasies of inflated importance to the Yorkins, a family whose pictures he has been developing since time immemorial. To Will Yorkin (Michael Vartan), his wife, Nina (Connie Nielsen), and son, Jakob (Dylan Smith), their reliable "Sy the photo guy" is a benevolent but removed presence whose role in their lives is clearly defined. Unbeknownst to them, he is actually a dangerous obsessive who keeps a set of prints from every reel he develops for them, using the improperly obtained snapshots to create an ersatz family album.
Watching Williams pore lovingly over pictures that are not his own is the emotional meat of his largely wordless role, and it creates a frisson of violation to which any audience can respond. If you can't trust your friendly photo man, the movie questions, then who can you trust? Is there no such thing as homeland security after all?
While we fear this creature, we also feel sorry for him: He appears to come from nowhere and goes home to no one. And when he discovers the moral imperfections of the Yorkins -- who from the outside are as perfect as a family in (naturally) a Kodak ad -- we share his disappointment almost as much as we dread the inevitable retribution.
That climax doesn't entirely pay off. Parrish's transition from spectatorship to outraged action is beset by narrative turns that are increasingly implausible, and writer/director Mark Romanek makes the additional mistake of positing a specific explanation for his lead character's mania. We don't need one; merely knowing that Parrish is proves every point the movie can hope to make about privacy and its subversion. "One Hour Photo" works best when it's simply but skillfully exploiting our post-Sept.11 paranoia that we no longer know who anyone is -- and perhaps never did.