Sy works the photo-development desk in a consumer paradise called SavMart. He is middle-height, pudgy without being obese, balding and bespectacled. He speaks in a soft, soothing voice with the tonal effect of Muzak and keeps a smile of cooperative beneficence frozen on a face that beams with eager friendliness and still manages to remain almost utterly unseen. Dressed in his uniform, he is practically invisible. Clearly, if SavMart could figure a way to replace him with a robot, he'd be out of a job.
Sy has even less existence in his private life. He eats joyless meals alone in the employee dining room. (The film fails to account adequately for why no one else takes lunch when Sy does, but the proposition works metaphorically.) He lives in a barren, colorless apartment that resembles nothing so much as a prison cell. His compact car is white and nondescript. He has no family, and, evidently, no friends. His only contact save for that with his customers seems to be with his hamster, a creature grown too large for his small cage, like Sy trapped and pathetically and frenetically rushing in place on his treadmill. It is little wonder that the man teeters so precipitously on the edge of abnormality.
Sy lives vicariously through the photos he processes. He makes secret prints for himself of those a client takes of a naked girlfriend. He dares to imagine himself better off than the lady who takes hundreds of pictures of her cats. But mostly, Sy develops a whole fantasy life about the Yorkin family, pretty young mother Nina (Connie Nielsen), who brings in the rolls of film, her sensitive 8-year-old son, Jake (Dylan Smith), and her scruffily handsome husband, Will (Michael Vartan). Young, healthy, active and seemingly close and loving, the Yorkins are to Sy the perfect family. He yearns for a relationship with them that doesn't exist. He imagines himself a beloved uncle, someone invited over to dinner, someone called on a regular basis, someone cared for with solicitous concern; someone, perhaps, who might even reside with the family and take care of their house when they are away.
Sy makes prints for himself of all the Yorkins' photographs and studies each picture for all it reveals about the family's interests and activities. Fairly obviously, Sy's obsession with the Yorkins is not destined to end happily, a thriller formula that would drive the picture successfully even if it did not begin at the end with Sy's arrest.
Unfortunately, Romanek's script isn't as tight as it should be. Throughout we keep wondering who is taking the pictures Sy develops of the Yorkins. Some unidentified party is repeatedly available to man the camera, even in situations where an observer is almost preposterous. The casual cruelty with which Sy is treated by SavMart manager Bill Owens (Gary Cole) seems an act of narrative piling on. And Owens' sudden detection of Sy's malfeasance (making prints for himself) arrives with far too much convenience. So does the secret Sy discovers about the Yorkins. At the end, the import of a packet of photos Sy has taken yields only to uncertain speculation.
Still, this picture has its merits. Williams' central performance is devoid of his chronic excesses, one of the best of his career. Artful symbolism permeates the visuals. The emptiness of consumerism is skewered with laudable subtlety. And Sy's character is developed with considerable complexity. We feel sorry for him even while we find him creepy. This makes for effective tension. We don't want Sy to do things that we feel sure he's just about to do, not only because they are bad things, but because we don't want him to get in trouble.
Despite the harrowing climactic scene toward which the picture drives relentlessly, I suspect some viewers will find One Hour Photo too quiet. On the contrary, and despite its flaws, I liked the fact that the film refused to take me exactly where it made me sure it was going.