There are movies that pull the rug out from under their audiences in the very last moments, and in doing so reveal that much of what we have just seen was actually an illusion. Then there are movies that pull the rug out from under their audiences somewhere in the middle, thus giving us, and the characters, time to come to terms with what the relationship between reality and illusion depicted in these films might mean. And then there are movies that don’t have a rug in the first place. These movies let you know that their characters inhabit an unreal world, and so you patiently sit through two hours of puzzle pieces bumping up against each other and failing to fit together, and you wait for that moment at the end when the penny will drop, the pieces will fit, and illusion will give way to reality. Surprise twist endings are a dime a dozen, so these films remove the surprise.
Stay belongs to this last group. It begins with a car accident on the Brooklyn Bridge, after which we see a young man, Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling), walk away from the burning wreckage and up to the camera. Suddenly Henry’s face is replaced by that of the psychologist Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor), moments before he rises out of bed. Why are the faces linked in such a way, in this scene and others? Do the men share a psychic bond? Is one a figment of the other’s imagination? One thing’s for sure — something’s fishy, something about the proceedings is not exactly real, and the film compels us to ask such questions through its use of peculiar camera angles and digitally enhanced edits.
In fact, the film starts with a string of strange, disorienting images. The car accident is seen from the perspective of one of the tires, and when Sam wakes up, the camera seems to be attached to his body and pointing up at his face; moments later, the camera is still attached to his body, but the background has morphed, and Sam is no longer in his bedroom but riding a bicycle around some university campus. After a few minutes of this sort of thing, the viewer is grateful when Sam arrives at the office of a colleague — he’s filling in for her while she is indisposed — and the camera adopts more conventional points of view.
But the tricks continue. Normally, when a film cuts between close-ups of two people facing each other during a conversation, they might be positioned against the same background, with one looking to the camera’s left and the other to the camera’s right. But when Sam meets Henry — he’s one of Sam’s colleague’s patients, and he calls Sam his “substitute shrink” — the two men are framed in close-up so that they both look to the right. Instead of getting us to look back-and-forth between two sides of the screen, the film keeps our eyes on a single point, and this, too, raises questions about the link between these two men.
At first it seems that Henry might have supernatural powers. He accurately predicts a surprise hailstorm, and he tells Sam he hears voices. But the most important thing we learn about him is that he plans to commit suicide at midnight on his twenty-first birthday — which is only a few days away. (Henry declares his intentions so matter-of-factly, Sam has no idea how to react.) We also learn that he is an artist, and that he idolizes an artist who committed a similar form of suicide. By this point, we also know that Sam’s girlfriend Lila Culpepper (Naomi Watts) is an artist who once attempted suicide herself, and who is now reluctant to take her medication because it interferes with her painting. Is she also linked to Henry somehow? Is Henry a personification of Sam’s worst fears for Lila? Or is Lila an embodiment of Sam’s deepest hopes for Henry? Or is something else going on?
And so it goes. Stay could have been an interesting drama about the relationship between guilt and fear and the will to live. But the script, by David Benioff (who also wrote the promising 25th Hour and the not-so-promising Troy), is more interested in teasing us with clues to its underlying premise: Why do so many scenes feature a woman and a boy carrying a balloon? Why do people sometimes vanish in the middle of a scene? Why do one character’s experiences sometimes show up in paintings or on screens in the backgrounds of another character’s experiences? Why do some actors play multiple characters? Why does Sam experience strange cases of déjà vu? Believe it or not, this is only a partial list of the film’s gimmicks, and if it all sounds incredibly convoluted, that’s because it is.
What’s more, you get increasingly frustrated with the characters for being so blind to how strange their world is. Sam, in particular, keeps on expecting the world to function normally — and being surprised when it doesn’t — long after his experiences begin to get really bizarre, and his very inability to process what’s been happening to him makes him seem a little unreal himself. Instead of feeling for him or for any of the other characters, you sit back and wait to see what the filmmakers will do with them. The film dares us to think that at least some of these people might exist inside one of the character’s heads, but the only heads we want to examine when all is said and done are those of the filmmakers.
Speaking of which, this movie is directed by Marc Forster, whose last two films, Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, were rooted in compelling and believable characters. They were also remarkably assured and well-crafted. Stay, on the other hand, feels like the work of a newbie who wants to prove how stylish and clever he can be; and it doesn’t help that the film recycles every cliché we’ve seen over the past decade about the thin line between reality and illusion, or the thin line that separates individual identities, or whatever. You can sometimes be too clever for your own good, and ultimately the film delivers such a weak payoff that it makes nearly everything that came before it seem rather pointless.
1.5 stars (out of 4)
Talk About It
1. What do you make of all the repeated images in this film? Note the boy with the balloon, the scenes in which people run down spiraling staircases, the scenes against glass walls, and the way scenes from characters’ lives become images in other people’s lives.
2. Lila tells Sam, “Tell me they’ll remember me.” Sam asks, “They?” Lila replies, “The world.” Sam asks, “Is that what you want?” What does this scene say about the way some people hope to attain life beyond death? What do you want people to remember about you?
3. What does the film say about the relationship between beauty, life, and death? Note how Henry idolizes an artist who believed “an elegant suicide is the greatest work of art,” and note how Lila says Henry should not commit suicide because “there’s too much beauty to quit.”
4. What keeps you going in life? What is there to live for? Is there any point where you should stop fighting death?
5. Henry seems to believe he is going to hell, and at different points and in different ways, he says, “Forgive me.” Do you think he needs to be forgiven? Why do you think people sometimes feel guilt when they might be innocent? How should we deal with this?
The Family Corner
For parents to consider
Stay is rated R for language and some disturbing images. The language includes four-letter words and names taken in vain. People also start bleeding spontaneously, and there are intense sequences involving a car accident. A scene takes place in a strip club, but the exotic dancers keep their tops on. Characters also discuss suicide; one of them shows the scars from her suicide attempt, while another puts out cigarettes on his arm.
— A version of this review was first published at Christianity Today Movies.