In the flash-forward opening scene of "One Hour Photo," detectives come into an interrogation room and confront subtly unsettling Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) -- an obsessive mega-mart photo lab employee who gradually came to stalk a customer's family. They have questions about what he had against the family's father and a package of snapshots Sy took just before his arrest for crimes as yet unnamed. But he has only one thing to say about the pictures: "Do you guys have your own lab, or do you have to send it out?"
Following "Death to Smoochy" and "Insomnia," Williams puts the cherry on top of an image-tampering trifecta of psychotic antagonist roles with this unrecognizable performance. Balding and blonde, sporting Sans-a-Belt slacks, Velcro-fastened shoes, a blue smock and a freshly-straightened name tag, Sy blends into the perfectly ordered shelves of his bland, cavernous super-store. He seems harmless enough -- like a desperately lonely 45-year-old who has been socially inept and apprehensive his whole life -- until you see his apartment where he's literally lined the walls with hundreds of prints he's copied over several years from the photos of a pretty customer's seemingly ideal family. Then he seems as quietly menacing as Norman Bates.
In his imagination (some of which comes to life in a uncanny cut-and-paste sequence as the camera pushes in through the glossy finish of Sy's 4x6 prints), the photo clerk sees himself as "Uncle Sy" to this family that barely knows his name. In the course of the film, Sy's obsession, which begins with just making sure their pictures come out perfect, grows into something dangerous.
Failed attempts at lingering small talk with comely, affluent soccer mom Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen, "Gladiator") give way to following her home, where Sy sits across the street in his car, fantasizing about a break-in he would never have the courage to carry out. Spotting Nina's husband (Michael Vartan, "Never Been Kissed") in the store with their young son, Sy spurts out -- by way of a very uncomfortable introduction -- "You're a very lucky man, Mr. Yorkin. You have a lovely family and a very nice house too."
Williams' unusually understated air of festering psychosis gives Sy the quiet impression of being wound up inside like a twisted rubber band. But the finesse of his performance makes it easy to see why the Yorkins take him for nothing more than a sad but overly friendly oddball.
Writer-director Mark Romanek (making his feature debut) keeps his cards close to his vest, providing few hints to whether that rubber band is going to snap or slowly unwind. But when he's caught making extra prints from customers' negatives and subsequently fired, a devastated Sy finds his days free to begin stalking the family in earnest, starting by watching the son play soccer after school, then escalating rapidly with jarring results.
"One Hour Photo" stays sympathetic to Sy from start to finish, inviting the audience inside his mind (partially through an anxious, forlorn voice-over), where the Yorkins symbolize everything he longs for outside of his obsession with perfect photo developing. But Romanek keeps the film constantly taut at the same time, reflecting the character's instability with a metaphorical visual style and an unnerving, heartbeat-like score by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek (who collaborated on the amazing soundtrack for 1999's hyperactive German import "Run Lola Run").
Minor authenticity problems in the screenplay arise from time to time, especially in terms of police procedure during the events that lead to Sy's arrest. Romanek also makes the mistake of not trusting himself and his star to make the audience identify with Sy. Just to be safe, he tries to garner some last-minute compassion with allusions to a screwed-up childhood. It's a gratuitous and unnecessary move.
But imperfections aside, this unusual psychological thriller remains uniquely gripping right up to its conclusion, which leaves you to decide for yourself if Sy's eventually disconcerting actions may have had a positive end result.