One Hour Photo

Robin Williams has a deep, soothing voice that has too often been used in movies to quietly tell us how we can save ourselves. “Patch Adams,” “Jakob the Liar,” “Bicentennial Man,” “Jack” — all of these (and others) were sanctimonious pictures where Williams played the Wise Clown meant to show us the way.

It is wonderful, then, to see that sonorous voice used for evil, not good, in “One Hour Photo,” which will surely be one of the most thrilling films of the year. For this time Williams is not a slightly off-beat fellow whose disarming but gentle humor guides the rest of humanity along the path to enlightenment. No, this time Williams is a psychotic man who buys a big knife and might kill someone with it.

Williams plays Sy Parrish, a loner and a perfectionist who works at the photo counter at a suburban Wal-Mart-type store. He has worked there for 11 years and in that time has come to know some of the regular customeres very well. In particular, he is attached to the Yorkins — William (Michael Vartan) and Nina (Connie Nielsen) and their little boy, Jacob (Dylan Smith). He’s been developing their photos ever since they were married. Why, he feels like he’s part of the family himself!

Trouble is, the Yorkins think of Sy as “the photo guy,” the fellow at the store whose name and face they know, and nothing more. Sy is experiencing unrequited love at its most heartbreaking — and at its creepiest.

His obsession with the family becomes a threat when he learns a secret harbored by one of its members. That’s when the awkward, uncomfortable moments between Sy and the Yorkins give way to more deliberate, unsettling behavior.

In a voice-over narration, Sy observes that we only take pictures of happy things. “Someone looking through our photo album would conclude we had led a joyous, happy existence.” Clearly, this is not the case for Sy. We don’t know what his photo album would include; indeed, we don’t know much about him at all. In fact, the one revelation about his background is the one fault the movie has. It was creepier not knowing what made him this way than it is for the reason to be given, and for it to be such a trite one.

Writer/director Mark Romanek has done extensive work in music videos, and the more positive attributes of that medium — a visual storytelling style, an eye for effective camera movement — are brought to bear in this, his first feature film. Together with cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, Romanek puts Sy in a lot of sterile, all-white environments, isolates him from the world, covers his eyes with a car’s rearview mirror — things that have been done before, yes, but all that means is that Romanek has learned from the masters. If he keeps this up, Romanek could join David Fincher and the Coen Brothers as one of the best visual directors working today.

Robin Williams is not the only one to suddenly display a gift for understatement. The film’s musical score is by German industrial musicians Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek, and it is perfect. Rather than forcing us to be scared by having the music lunge at us, the tones complement the film. One of the movie’s most supremely creepy moments is at Sy’s lonely apartment, when the camera pulls back to reveal a huge wall of 11 years’ worth of Yorkin family photos, put up as a shrine to the family he desperately wants to be part of. It’s a spine-tingling sight already, but the music sends it over the edge.

No acting career was ever in such need of, nor was able to achieve, a re-defining like “One Hour Photo” does for Robin Williams. We knew he could be a fantastic actor when he wanted to be, but we’d forgotten, what with all the syrupy family crap he’s been doing lately. “One Hour Photo” is haunting and ominous, written, directed and acted nearly to perfection.

A (; R, harsh profanity, some strong nudity, some strong sexuality.)