Stay (2005)

Film #13: Stay (2005)

In the mood for a mystery, I consulted my film library and randomly chose one. I had never heard of 2005’s Stay, written by David Benioff and directed by Marc Forster, but its attractive cast made the case for a spontaneous viewing. The film begins with a rollicking POV shot of a car accident on a bridge. Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling), a 20-year-old survivor of the wreck, goes to see his usual psychiatrist, only to find a “substitute shrink” in the form of Dr. Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor). After Henry tells Sam that he plans to kill himself in a few days’ time, Sam is distressed enough to confide in his girlfriend Lila (Naomi Watts), herself a suicide survivor. Sam starts to investigate Henry’s background more in-depth, and as he does, his reality begins to unfold, leaving him unsure of who, exactly, is the crazy one in all of this.

Stay belongs to a class of films that I’ve only known as a profane term (mindf***), but that can apparently also be called “brain burners”. These movies often employ stylized surrealism to obfuscate so-called objective reality with more subjective states, like dreams and psychoses. There’s plenty of them out there – from popular cult films like Memento to lesser-watched fare like Jacob’s Ladder – and because they’re often able to blend interesting filmmaking with cerebral storytelling, they usually win my affection. Unfortunately, Stay failed to successfully combine these equally-important elements.

The film establishes its surrealism immediately after the car crash opening. The characters live in a sort of dreamlike state, transporting impossible distances, their actions and thoughts rendered incoherent through jump cuts. Sam especially seems shackled in uncertainty, constantly shot behind frosted glass or boxed inside of tight, closed frames. That dreamlike quality I mentioned exists right off the bat, but Sam seems unaware of it at first. After meeting Henry and being introduced to his schizophrenic perspective, Sam becomes more cognizant of the warped world he inhabits, creating a positive feedback loop wherein reality unravels at a faster and faster rate.

There’s a lot of apparent symbolism early on that intrigued me. Dialogue and filmmaking decisions revolve around identity questions so much that I was wondering if we were in for the old Fight Club twist. Characters speak of things from “another life”, and the 180-degree rule is shattered in the initial scene between Sam and Henry, putting them both on the left side of the frame as though it were a single person talking to himself. Other instances are more subtle, such as when the characters switch positions after temporarily walking behind a wall. This symbolism is accompanied by some fantastic visuals. Forster and his usual cinematographer Roberto Schaefer create great compositions, do a lot of nice things with colors, and shoot more than one beautiful sequence that take place on staircases. Editor Matt Chessé works in a very hands-on manner that keeps the film energetic while adding to the tone of disorientation. And the entire cast is commendable, especially Gosling’s tortured Henry, a character you simultaneously want to hug to comfort and get away from for safety.

But all of these elements can’t salvage the story. Stay holds out too much information for far too long, and as the film continues in its second half, you begin to wonder what the point of it all is. By time Henry starts performing near Jesus-like acts of healing, you’ll have given up trying to make sense of it all, and will sit impatiently waiting for the ultimate explanation. For what it’s worth, the ending and “twist” of the film is a bit interesting, but even though it retroactively makes sense of a lot of the film’s surrealism, it also leaves an agitation that everything you just watched was for naught.

Well-acted and well-crafted, Stay is a psychological thriller that initially intrigues but ultimately frustrates, relying far too much on an ending that doesn’t make up for the 60 minutes of confusion that precedes it.

Final rating: 5.5/10

–James A. Janisse

Stray Observations:

  • Those two staircase sequences really were great to look at, though. The first one, dominated by blue glass, had a very modern aesthetic, while the second, with its stone spiral staircase, created a more medieval look appropriate for the Hamlet stuff that surrounded it.
  • I liked that Sam has a girlfriend who’s an artist, but is continually told that he’s a poor judge of artwork.
  • Adding to the dreamlike unreality pervasive in the film, I noticed that a lot of the extras in the background were dressed in pairs and triplets, which makes some sense given the final reveal.
  • The exception to the excellent cast was B.D. Wong (holy shit it’s Henry Wu from Jurassic Park!), who plays the acerbic Dr. Ren with way too much disinterest.
  • I liked the sequence in Henry’s mom’s house, with the unnaturally bare rooms and the quietly foreboding dog. In fact, there were so many good individual sequences in this movie. It’s sad that they were ruined by a subpar story connecting them all.

One response

  1. Estie Labuschagne

    The ‘act of healing’, as you call it, was not to imitate Jesus, it was just to show that Henry craved for his dad to accept him for who he really is. To see him in a new light. I suppose he never had that with his dad when he was still alive, so that’s why he craved it so much and saw his dad as a blind man in his subconscious mind. But I guess we all interpret this film in all kinds of different ways.

    May 13, 2012 at 11:34 am

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