The Complexity of Sy Parrish: Analyzing the Psychology in One Hour Photo

*Warning: Feature contains descriptions of the film plot and spoilers

The movie opens to the ominous score written by Reinhold Heil and Johnny Klimek and the visual of a police camera seemingly pointed at us. The camera flashes and we are engulfed in white light before witnessing the digital image of Sy Parrish (Robin Williams) uploading on a computer monitor. His facial expression is grim and defeated. His hair is cropped short and bleached. He wears eye glasses that are out of style. His clothes are devoid of any exuberance and limited to basic colors, mostly white. Once we hear the voice One Hour Photoof a police officer demanding Sy step to the left for a profile photo, we as the audience realize this is a “bad guy.” He has clearly done something that has caused him to be arrested, and given his appearance, we instantly label him as a deviant. He fits the typical profile and we assume he has committed the worst. For the remainder of the film, we are bracing for a horrid crime that has devastated many. Yet by the conclusion of the film, even though Sy has indeed committed a crime, we cannot help but feel pity for him. This contrasts greatly with our first impression of Sy upon the opening of the film, which functions greatly as part of the underlying theme of the film: The “bad guys” do not always fit within the binaries of moral versus immoral. In fact, people hurt in plain sight and very easily they can snap if people ignore the warning signs. One Hour Photo provides one such example of this type of “bad guy,” yet when one understands the psychology of the character, it immediately becomes obvious that they deserve help opposed to punishment.

One Hour Photo is a 2002 film starring Robin Williams as Sy Parrish, a one hour photo technician who appears harmless, but has actually been stalking a young suburban family for nearly ten years: the Yorkins. Nina Yorkin (Connie Nielsen) has been taking the family photos to the SavMart one hour photo booth, to which Sy has made himself copies of all photos, posting them as a collage on his apartment wall and also uses them to live vicariously through the Yorkins. This all changes when Sy learns some ugly truth about the family and eventually snaps, igniting a situation that threatens the safety of others.

In order to understand Sy, one must pay attention to the color schemes of the film. The costuming and cinematography encase the film almost entirely in white. For the entirety of the film Sy solely wears off color white dress pants, a white polo or dress shirt, with a cream colored blazer draped over his outfit. Even Sy’s apartment is encased in white, devoid of anything that would indicate an alternate color. Therefore, this is a glaring representation of who Sy actually is: he is no one. This color offers audiences a direct vantage into the mind of Sy. He has nothing in his life, nobody in his life, no feeling in his life. The white is an indicator that he is a lonely, isolated person. He has no past he longs for, nor does he have anyone to share any aspect of his life with. All he has is his being, which he has constructed very carefully in order to function with the outside world. There is a certain level of safety with this color scheme as well, being able to blend in with the outside world without attracting attention. He has become complacent to this world because he cannot be harmed in it.

Sy only embraces color in small instances. These moments occur when he is working, wearing his uniform SavMart blue vest that allows for him to stand out and also the Yorkin’s photographs plastered in his otherwise white-colored apartment. These deviations of the white color suggest that work and the Yorkins are all Sy has in his life. These are the only aspects of his life that give him meaning and purpose. Without them, he ceases to be anything. His work as a photo technician is so efficient to the point of obsession, but this is for a reason. He has sought to make this job his life because he has concocted the idea that without his efficiency, he will let down the people who seemingly depend upon him. Truth is, nobody could care less if the resolution is one micro-molecule different than the other. To Sy, this is the difference between perfection and flaw and he cannot bear the concept of something outside of the parameter of perfection. In his mind, he is building a reputation as the best photo technician in the state, perhaps even the country. It is a deluded mentality, but it provides him with purpose and with pride. Sy directly indicates this in one of his numerous voiceovers throughout the movie by saying, “I consider it an important job…I process these photos as if they were my own.” This pride conveys to the audience that Sy truly loves his job as a photo technician, and in many regards, it subconsciously reconciles a very complicated past.

That complicated past, as revealed ain the film’s conclusion, is that Sy is a former victim of child abuse. When speaking to Detective James Van Der Zee, Sy says in tears, “You would never take disgusting, sick, degrading pictures of your children doing these things,” implying that his parents likely molested him and photographed it. Worse, it is heavily hinted that this abuse was never reported. The absence of any past or family reinforces the psychological damage that has been done to him. His safety, as hinted by the white color schemes, is achieved by being very controlled and regimented. He has likely spent the vast majority of his life on the verge of snapping and it was only with his job that he was able to maintain his sanity. It is not ironic Sy has taken the job as a photo technician. To him, it is an opportunity to correct his past, at least subconsciously. This is why the blue vest is symbolic in his work scenes, because this is something that gives Sy the ability to be free, liberated, and himself. He doesn’t necessarily fit in, but he is somebody in this capacity.

Yet it is clear that his job wasn’t able to fill that gap in his life entirely. As a victim of child abuse, Sy is left with a past that will forever haunt him. Without any professional help, all Sy knows to combat this is to repress his past. Yet by doing that, it makes him wholly aware that he doesn’t exist. In a bit of irony, Sy has no photographs of himself or of his family. This partially explains Sy’s obsessive behavior with his work, seeing that photographs captures moments of sheer happiness and he doesn’t want to deny those from reliving those moments. Sy does this knowing that nobody would ever do it towards him. This is why his voiceover, “And if these pictures have anything important to say to future generations, it’s this: I was here. I existed. I was young, I was happy, and someone cared enough about me in this world to take my picture,” is ultimately heartbreaking. For Sy, the only photographs of him were at his expense. The happiness and memories that typically stem from photography was denied to him as a child. Now, as an adult, Sy is left with the reality that he is invisible in society. He associates himself as small, insignificant, and alone. This especially links with Sy’s voiceover stating that nobody takes photographs of “the little things” that “make up the true picture of our lives.” For Sy, he wants to be important to someone. While he has crafted himself as important through his job, he deep down knows that he is nothing to people.

This is why Sy has been discreetly stalking the Yorkins by always making a copy of their photos for himself. This is not done out of deception or malice, but rather to live vicariously through the Yorkins. When Sy jokes to Nina, “I almost feel like Uncle Sy!,” there is much truth to this statement. For nine years, Sy has taken the events the Yorkins have lived through and treated them as if he has experienced them himself. It should be noted that it is obvious the Yorkins were deliberately chosen at the onset of this stalking since they were a vibrant, young couple who were expecting a child. Therefore, it can be deduced that its actually through the Yorkins’ son, Jake, that Sy is truly living through. This makes sense considering that Sy’s own childhood had been corrupted. It’s not healthy, but by living through the Yorkins, it gives Sy a real-world attachment. The Yorkins have become his imaginary family, a connection that makes him feel something outside of being worthless and alone. This is indicated with many of his fantasies, such as being a part of their Christmas cards or even spending the day in their home without any issues. However, the tragedy is that Sy has concocted an idea of who the Yorkins are in his mind. He believes them to be the perfect happy family who will raise Jake into something truly magnificent. The reality is that Nina and Will (Michael Vartan) are far from perfect and are on the verge of a divorce. There is a brilliant juxtaposition of Sy imagining himself integrated with the perfect Yorkin family in contrast to Will berating Nina for spending money without any regard while she accuses him of being an absent father. Yet nonetheless, Sy isn’t aware of this and this imagery he has concocted of them provides the second color deviation from his white-colored life. The wall that he has taped their photos to is immersed in glossy colored photos in contrast to the white interior of his apartment. Just like his job, the Yorkins are all he has in his life. SavMart and the Yorkins’ photos are the only color in his life, thereby his only purpose in life.

Therefore, when Sy is fired from his job, which would hinder him from living through the Yorkins’ photos, it is of no surprise why Sy snaps. In a matter of seconds, Sy has lost everything that has given him purpose. The subsequent imagery after Sy is fired of him seated at the edge of a children’s bed in SavMart emphasizes the sense of loss he is experiencing, but further emphasizes the concept of a lost childhood and also his inability to associate in a hostile world. In a fleeting moment he has lost everything. More tragic is that Sy doesn’t even have anyone to share his grief with. The cruel reality of this is especially apparent when Nina arrives to the photo booth and offers Sy the final roll of film he’ll ever get from the Yorkins, which is ironically the first roll of film Jake has ever taken on his own. Despite describing himself as “Uncle Sy,” he doesn’t tell Nina why he is devastated. He does this because deep down he recognizes he isn’t a part of the family and she isn’t someone who would truly be interested in his problems. The final twist of the blade is when Sy looks through Jake’s photographs later, seeing they are of “the little things” he expressed earlier. He starts crying not only due to loss, but because he truly identifies with this child. He sees Jake is an innocent, pure child and not having that to live vicarious through puts him back in a world of nothing and isolation.

Once Sy learns Will Yorkin is having an affair, this tears open the wound of Sy’s past, to which he becomes reactive towards it. After he slips in photos of Will’s affair into Nina’s photos and seeing that she does nothing about it, this finalizes Sy’s decent into committing his crime. “What the hell is wrong with these people?” He ironically states to himself while spying on the Yorkins, but this is a telling moment. In this instance, Sy has associated Will and Nina Yorkin with his own upbringing and sees Jake’s childhood potentially being destroyed like his own was. It isn’t rational, but to Sy, it seems logical. This is why Sy immediately grows to despise Will Yorkin and scratches his face out of all the pictures he has collected over the years. Sy has associated Will with his own father and channels his hatred for his father and what he did to him towards Will Yorkin. Without his job and the reality that the Yorkins are not the ideal family he thought they were, his past consumes him. This is indicated with his nightmare of standing in the middle of a solid white room with his eyes closed. He opens his eyes, revealing them to be bleeding a deep red color before his eyes explodes and splashes blood everywhere. This directly indicates the sadness and pain he is experiencing. He is devastated that his fantasy has been proven false.

Yet subconsciously he knows what he is about to do is wrong, as suggested by his actions prior to the film’s climax. He takes candid photographs of his former boss’ child and has the film developed at the SavMart he used to work at. While this can absolutely be interpreted as a threat from Sy to his boss, but it is more of a cry for help. Sy knew his boss would react and contact the authorities, which he does and they immediately seek to find Sy. Whether it he did it knowingly or not, Sy knew he wasn’t able to stop himself from what he was about to do and was seeking help in an unorthodox way.

Yet Sy’s crime is especially telling about his rationale and motivations. When Sy attacks Will and his mistress in their hotel room, he threatens them with a knife but never does bodily harm to either of them. Instead, he takes photographs while forcing them to pose in sexually explicit positions. However Sy does not allow for Will and his mistress to ever touch each other and becomes agitated whenever they accidentally touch, hinting that Sy has a loathing for sex. “Pretend it’s all pretend,” he snaps at them while waving his knife at them. This action that Sy does is not only a form of humiliation, but this is a direct linkage to his past. It’s revenge for what he endured as a child, taking out his hatred for his father indirectly on Will Yorkin. While this is deeply disturbing and ultimately a crime, this reaction from Sy is not surprising considering the lifetime of trauma that he has repressed and the deep isolation he has had throughout his life as a result of that.

This concept of humiliation is further confirmed that Sy never actually took photographs of Will and his mistress. By the conclusion of the film when Sy asks for his photos and is given them by Detective Van Der Zee, they are merely photos of “the little things” he referenced earlier in the movie. This is ultimately tragic because it provides a final understanding of Sy’s mental state once he is stripped away of his job and his ability to live through the Yorkins. Without either, Sy is almost like a confused child. Yet more importantly, the photos Sy takes link back to an earlier voiceover near the beginning of the film: “Someone looking through our photo album would conclude that we had led a joyous, leisurely existence free of tragedy. No one ever takes a photograph of something they want to forget.” Sy’s photos are precisely that. They are liberated of sorrow and tragedy. In fact, they emphasize Sy’s innocence and his longing to be noticed and cared about by someone, which is reinforced by the film concluding with the imagined “family picture” of the Yorkins with a smiling Sy. That is the ultimate tragedy of the film. All Sy wanted was to be a part of a loving family, but will never get that. In many regards, this makes Sy Parrish a remarkably tragic character.

The psychology of Sy Parrish is complex when watching One Hour Photo. One final acknowledge ought to be given to Robin Williams, whose performance as Sy Parrish was perhaps one of the best performances of his career. His acting functioned as further proof that he could break away from his comedy character-types and offer a raw, authentic performance that both frightened yet was crafted expertly enough to have audiences pity the character as well. Williams’ performance as Sy Parrish is one of the most authentic performances ever put on screen and entirely why One Hour Photo remains a compelling film to watch.

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2 thoughts on “The Complexity of Sy Parrish: Analyzing the Psychology in One Hour Photo

  1. Absolutely fantastic analysis. I hope you continue to write such great features on film. One Hour Photo is pretty disturbing, but now all of a sudden I kinda want to see it again.

    Liked by 1 person

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