Directed by: Marc Forster
Starring: Ewan Mcgregor, Naomi Watts, Ryan Gosling, Bob Hoskins, Kate Burton, Janeane Garofalo
It's not surprising that Marc Forster's Stay has taken a drubbing from many critics (though by no means all), nor that it has been less than enthusiastically greeted by audiences, who are not flocking to see it. The fact that Stay has been gathering dust on the shelves for some time, of course, indicated a problem, but my guess is that it wasn't so much a question of quality as it was of how to market this thing.
In the end, Fox seems to have decided to put it out as a classy horror film. While it could qualify in that category, it's really an art-house film that needed an entirely different approach to selling it. Cobbling together a trailer that made it look like some sort of Sixth Sense knock-off did this intense and intensely complicated movie -- perhaps the most challenging film released this year -- a grave disservice.
Stay isn't a one-way ticket to a cheesy gimmick ending. It's a full-fledged immersion into a world of nightmarish intensity, a world that looks a lot like the one we know, but not quite, and the longer we inhabit it, the less it resembles our own -- or does it?
The story line for Stay is in itself complex. Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor) is presented to us as a psychologist who is standing in for a colleague for a couple of weeks. His first patient is a young man named Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling), who is outraged that his normal therapist is out. Henry returns at a time when he is not scheduled and, among other things, announces his intention of killing himself in three days -- on his 21st birthday, in honor of a painter he admires, who did exactly that. As the time draws near, Sam tries to find people who are connected with his troubling patient. He meets Henry's mother, only to learn that the strange woman he meets has been dead for some months, while a dog that attacks him has been dead for years. Sam's girlfriend (Naomi Watts) -- a former patient who attempted suicide and still suffers from depression -- feels she knows how Henry feels in ways that Sam never can, and she offers her input.
Rather than becoming clearer, the story becomes more and more impenetrable. We see things happen that don't make sense, or that happen only to happen a second time. The same people reappear in different capacities throughout the film. Questions of identity abound, and a sense of dread and creepiness hangs over it all. And does Stay reach an answer? Well, yes and no. It may arrive at its end, or perhaps at its beginning. Is there a solution to the mysterious events? No. Not just one, anyway.
The key to it all lies in the style of the film. Only last week, I complained that Tony Scott's Domino was a movie where grafted-on style replaced substance. By contrast, Forster's film is one where the style is the substance.
What's really happening in Stay is conveyed through the completely controlled manner of the images and the clues they contain. Identities shift -- or seem to. People move from place to place within the frame from shot to shot. A spiral staircase goes on forever in an amazing vertiginous sequence -- and ultimately leads back to its beginning, in a way. Time shifts constantly, as does locale. And much of this is not foreground information, but either in the background or off to the side. The important image is not always the central one. And the demands this places on the viewer are incredible, especially in the world of spoon-fed simplicity that is mainstream film in 2005.
Stay would not merely be enhanced by multiple viewings; it's almost requires them. Even the sharpest-eyed among us is not going to pick out all the details in one, or even two, sittings; re-examination will yield dividends. But this complex and unusual work is a classic case of a film that will not be to everyone's taste. However, if you're open to its many mysteries, Stay is a stunner. Rated R for language and some disturbing images.
-- reviewed by Ken Hanke