Maybe the slumping box office and the national economy’s drunken swerve off a cliff can account for all the time our filmmakers are spending in massive discount stores these days. Auteurs have gotta make ends meet, after all, and Wal-Mart is always hiring. Maybe if you go into the biggest Sam’s Club in Anaheim, Renny Harlin will try to sell you this really expensive fish tank that you don’t want, or maybe Jean-Luc Godard will fill your cart with a random assortment of merchandise and send you to the cash register without speaking to you.
Filmmakers appear to be learning something under the fluorescent lights, though. Late summer alone has brought us The Good Girl and One Hour Photo, two intriguing portraits of middle-class dysfunction in which the characters spend too much time in monolithic consumer centers that are even more drab and sterile than the Big Lots on 200 South. But it’s way too easy to simply equate superstores with soullessness and quiet desperation. The Good Girl failed because it didn’t try to do much more.
Even successful music video directors like Mark Romanek (Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” and “The Perfect Drug”) are doing their time between the nasty pastel tank tops and the plastic lawn mowers. He wrote and directed One Hour Photo, the story of a monstrous clerk in a photo developing shop. Sy Parrish, who’s played so symphonically by Robin Williams that you can’t really get all the good stuff in one viewing, goes home from his whitewashed job to a sterile bachelor pad where he watches The Simpsons without laughing.
His life is comically empty—except for his preoccupation with the photos of a seemingly idyllic American family, the Yorkins (played by Frenchman Michael Vartan, Danish pastry Connie Nielsen and cute kid Dylan Smith). When they take their film to Sy, he routinely makes an extra set of prints for himself; they provide the only color in his apartment or his life. Sy lives silently through the Yorkins—until he realizes they aren’t as picture-perfect as they seem.
It would ruin a healthy set of twists to reveal much more. Romanek and Williams both do a masterful job of allowing our own paranoias to seep into Sy’s motivations to maintain order and appearances in his world (watch for hints that tell you we’re only seeing Sy’s side of this story). By limiting what we see, Romanek allows our imaginations to run riot, just as Williams does in his bone-dry performance. Romanek’s Nine Inch Nails videos were so spectacular because of their sinister undertones; like a rap from Snoop Dogg, they combined perceptible fascination with an overriding uneasiness. He does the same here, relying on the intimation of violence with meticulous visual suggestions and a discordant score. He leaves the rest to us.
Following his fine turn as an eerily detached murderer in Insomnia, Williams’ credibility gets upgraded to critical-but-stable with a delicate, resourceful performance. Maybe it’s all that experience with cocaine, but Williams seems effortlessly believable as a crazy man trying to look normal and calm. He has such a handle on this character, in fact, that he’s indirectly responsible for the film’s greatest flaw: None of the other characters are remotely as interesting. While Sy’s disappointment in them is the film’s main motivation, it’s nothing that we can understand.
Many viewers will easily pick out the themes that mark this film as a deep deconstruction of the emptiness of our common dreams—American Beauty in the Fotomat, if you will. But Romanek’s greatest achievements are in the melodrama and creepiness of Sy and his motivations. We watch Sy take his pursuit of the American dream in directions we’d never consider, and the thrill is visceral rather than intellectual. One Hour Photo is the best kind of horror film: It’s about terror in things that aren’t normally scary.