Stay (United States, 2005)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Going into Stay, I was aware that the director was Marc Forster, the man who made Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland. However, even with that knowledge, it wouldn't have surprised me to see David Lynch's name during the closing credits. Stay is the kind of dreamy, surreal motion picture that delights in messing with its viewers' minds. Ultimately, it's less cryptic than any of Lynch's recent films, since everything is explained (sort of) at the end. The outstanding question, however, is whether or not the resolution satisfies. Forster includes enough clues in the way he presents the narrative for audience members to intuitively figure out the secret, but I couldn't help feeling a little let down when the truth was unveiled. I have seen it before, and on more than one occasion. (I won't mention specific titles here because those who have seen the movie will immediately suspect the twist.)

Dr. Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor) is a psychiatrist who is filling in for an ill colleague. One of Sam's inherited patients is Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling), an art student with an uncanny knack of predicting the future and a penchant for self-destructive behavior. When Henry calmly announces that he intends to kill himself in a few days, on his 21st birthday, Sam decides to play the role of savior. The good doctor has experience with suicide - his girlfriend, Lila (Naomi Watts), attempted to kill herself several years ago. The deeper Sam goes into Henry's world, the more fractured the lines between reality and illusion become, until Sam doubts his own sanity.

Stay is one of those films where the director is given an opportunity to show off a little. Forster uses the chance to engage the audience with a series of daring scene-to-scene transitions. One man walks through a door and becomes another emerging from a train. A face morphs into that of another. He repeats certain short sequences two, three, four times. For a while, these seem like aspects of a flashy director's calling card but, as the film progresses, it becomes evident that there's an underlying strategy in Forster's stylistic choices. When it's all over, and you look back, you'll understand it.

So, Stay works brilliantly on a technical level. And the narrative holds together in retrospect. Unfortunately, the film is d.o.a. emotionally. Forster's style, while serving one purpose, distances the audience from the characters. We don't get "close" to any of them. And the movie's seeming lack of coherence and reality causes us to view them more as pawns than individuals. And who can get excited about wax figures being moved by an unseen hand? I didn't care about anyone. I was intrigued by the mystery of what was going on, but wasn't interested in what it meant for Sam, Henry, or Lila.

Maybe it's my imagination, but I think Ewan McGregor gives better performances when he uses his natural accent. This is one of those films when his diction is flawlessly American, but his acting seems stiff. Naomi Watts (also sporting an American accent) is underused. She's attractive, but her character isn't in many scenes and serves little purpose beyond giving Sam a home life and love interest. Ryan Gosling (best remembered for romancing Rachel McAdams in The Notebook) is credible as the creepy, is-he-or-isn't-he-nuts Henry. There are a couple of nice supporting performances. One is from an almost-unrecognizable Janeane Garafolo, who plays things straight. The other is from Bob Hoskins as a blind man (also with an American accent), who exhibits an energy that's missing from many of the other portrayals.

It's easy to admire a film like Stay, because it takes chances. It's less easy to like it. As with The Jacket, Stay toys with the audience's perceptions of reality (although without the layered science fiction aspects of the earlier film). But I cared about the protagonists of The Jacket; the same is not true of Stay. And that perhaps is the difference between an admirable failure and a success. Stay is interesting, but it's hard to recommend to anyone but the small cadre of David Lynch devotees who will inhale anything with a whiff of similarity to their favorite auteur's scent.

Stay (United States, 2005)

Director: Marc Forster
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Ryan Gosling, Naomi Watts, Bob Hoskins, Janeane Garofalo, Kate Burton, Elizabeth Reaser, B.D. Wong
Screenplay: David Benioff
Cinematography: Roberto Schaefer
Music: Asche & Spencer
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 2005-10-21
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Violence)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1