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(Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Forget funny, Robin Williams' greatest performance was a thriller

“Nobody takes a picture of something they want to forget.” – Seymour Parrish (One Hour Photo)

With a wide child-like grin and quick-witted persona, few actors throughout the history of Hollywood elicit the same pure joy as Robin Williams. His frenetic energy made Aladdin’s blue genie leap out from his animated restraints, and a natural ability to evoke sympathy in his innocent and caring persona led him to success with Mrs. Doubtfire. From there, Williams took home an Academy Award for Good Will Hunting, solidifying his expansive range. While Williams is undoubtedly known for his comedic character, his personal life suggested a more sobering reality, with his unfortunate inability to deal with his inner demons resulting in his death in 2014.  

This side of Williams often emerged in more serious cinematic roles, from his performance as a therapist in Good Will Hunting to his sage-like influence on the boys of Welton Academy Prep School in Dead Poets Society. In his apparent eternal optimism and placid demeanour, Williams made the role of teacher and public influencer his own. However, his character in Mark Romanek’s movie One Hour Photo is quite different, a unique role for the actor devoid of any real joy or particular inspiration. 

Released at the turn of the millennium, in 2002, Romanek’s film stars Robin Williams as a shy, introverted photo developer who targets a middle-class family with a bright, modern home as a personal project of study. 

Regularly visiting the department store at which he works, Williams’ character Seymour ‘Sy’ Parrish makes sure to copy the family’s holiday and birthday photos so that he can look at them in his spare time, plastering them across the wall of his home to create a mosaic of memories he’d long to possess. 

When Sy is fired from his position at the store, events quickly spiral downhill, with the painful jealousy of the family proving too much for his now broken spirit. It’s a clever, well-written and ingeniously shot film that explores the torment of loneliness and the yearning for human connection. So detached from reality, Sy returns to his basic flat decorated with white walls and appliances, devoid of emotional identity, only seeming to find any real joy in the satisfaction of a captured image. 

At first, his obsession with the photographs appears somewhat endearing, like looking through a telescope into the past, seeking joy from life’s happiest moments. However, this fixation balances on a knife-edge and soon falls into a physical reaction fuelled by Sy’s own envy. “Snapshot was originally a hunting term,” he utters as the film switches along with our impression of the lead character. Though still, even with the revelations of the films final act, Sy doesn’t feel like a monster or a creep. Thanks to William’s performance, his lead character elicits sympathy and simply seems like a lonely man, needy of proper support. 

Just like the film’s climactic scene in which Sy reveals the intent behind his acts, it was too that Robin Williams was simply hiding behind a mask of satisfaction, perhaps pining to return to memories long-since faded. One Hour Photo stands as one of the actor’s greatest roles, a reminder that beneath his child-like grin was a fine thespian and lonely man.

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