Connie Nielsen, Robin Williams, ...
Credit: One Hour Photo: Francois Duhamel

The Southern California Savmart where Seymour ”Sy” Parrish (Robin Williams) mans the film-processing booth in the arty stalker thriller One Hour Photo is a more affluent discount emporium than the down-at-the-heels Retail Rodeo featured in ”The Good Girl,” but the worldview is similar: In both conscientiously grim indie movies, the arid geography and bleaching illumination of off-price commerce combine to kill the spirit, and very bad things ensue.

In Sy’s case, it’s obsession with the Yorkins, a family of customers as handsome and richly tinted as Sy is blurry and underexposed. To the stunted, lonely Sy, a dun-colored man who lives in a sterile, impersonal apartment, stylish Nina (Connie Nielsen), her architect-husband, Will (Michael Vartan), and their huggable young son, Jake (Dylan Smith), are the photogenic picture of family closeness; certainly they appear to be happy in the photos they have dropped off for processing over the years. In fact, after handling the Yorkins’ snapshots for so long, Sy has almost come to believe — actually, psychotically to believe — that he’s a member of the perfect Yorkin family too.

”One Hour Photo” is about what can happen when a man (unbalanced by circumstances in his own miserable life and, of course, by the nerve-deadening mall culture so attractive to indie filmmakers) is wrenched from his illusions too abruptly and without supervised medical care. In Sy’s case, the opaque, friendless clerk goes from being a simple and creepy obsessive to being a complicated and dangerous stalker. And the movie goes from being music-video director Mark Romanek’s slick and simple study in human isolation to being a pulpier, and squarer, flick. (Sy tells the story in flashback in a police interrogation room; from now on, at least, he couldn’t hurt a fly.)

On the one hand, Romanek (director of Madonna’s ”Bedtime Story” and Nine Inch Nails’ ”Closer” videos), who says he was influenced by the trip-wired loners of classic ’70s films like ”Taxi Driver” and ”The Conversation,” becomes too enthralled by his own portrait-of-alienation camera shots at the expense of laying a believable foundation for that estrangement in his script. ”You’re neglectful. You’re never here,” Nina accuses her husband, although we’ve got no backup for the accusation based on the hundreds of photographs accumulated as a family.

On the other hand, Williams’ Sy is so fascinating and pitiless that the actor’s performance overrides the director’s penchant for fancy-video moments (e.g., Sy’s dream that his eyes are spurting blood). Dark, grim, unsympathetic roles like this one and the crafty murder suspect he played earlier this summer in ”Insomnia” are proving to be the very identity- and career-revitalizer the protean Williams misplaced during his dismally sappy ”Bicentennial Man”/”Patch Adams” movie years. Watching an episode of ”The Simpsons” without laughing from his sad easy chair, or looking through a new batch of Yorkin photos with way too much pleasure, Williams shows us Sy’s misery with no funny business. In ”One Hour Photo,” his is a snapshot of human complexity worth framing.

One Hour Photo
  • Movie
  • 98 minutes