Henry Letham wants to die. He knows the time it’s going to happen. He knows the place it’s going to happen. The reason he knows these things is because he’s going to kill himself. He’s done an unforgivable thing and he doesn’t believe he deserves to live. Dr. Sam Foster doesn’t want Henry to die. He wants to save Henry and he’s going to do everything in his power to accomplish it. Stay begins as a very simple situation that quickly descends into a bizarre series of events that are anything but simple circumstance.
To explain any more of the story than that would be an exercise in futility. I could try, but in the case of this film the satisfaction comes from exploring it for yourself, untainted by anything that I or any other reviewer could offer. I could probably begin by listing the series of unexplainable and impossible events that occur, all the while doing my best to avoid lying to you or giving anything important away. I’d frustrate myself and end up unable to sleep tonight fearing I’d ruined something for you. Instead, I’ll try and explain to you why the Stay is so wonderful and why there’s a chance you may very well hate it.
Director Marc Forster has created a mind game with his film. He drops riddle after riddle onto his unsuspecting audience, most of whom probably thought they were in for some kind of a supernatural-suspense flick. The posters proclaim the tagline, “between the worlds of the living and the dead there is a place you're not supposed to stay”. While technically accurate on some level, the spookiness of the phrasing and the disturbingly frantic imagery used in the previews belie a movie that is more of a thriller and psych-mystery flick. Each turn of the plot draws an even stranger line between Letham and Foster and things get so unbelievable that it’s guaranteed you’ll never guess how it’s going to end. Therein may lay the movie’s biggest problem.
Many great films begin with characters in ordinary situations and build up to strange conclusions and a phenomenal twist ending. Forster has pulled something of a reversal, opening with extraordinary events and building to a more humble and sensible, yet surprising finale. If you’re the kind of person whose movie psyche lives for the adrenaline rush of a mind blowing, spectacular, out-of-left-field finish, you’re probably in for something of a disillusioning let down. Heck, you’ll probably hate it. On the other hand, if you subscribe to the philosophy that the adventure lays, not in the destination, but in the journey, this is your kind of movie.
That’s not to say it’s pointless to try and guess what the ending has in store. By all means, theorize away. There’s a definite vicious pleasure in trying to bend and wrap your mind around the increasingly contorted and convoluted events that you’re given to try and make sense of. Forster has done his best to enhance that experience through sight and sound. The movie is a cacophony, both aurally and visually, adding to the sensation that you’re going insane, right along with the characters. He spares no technique to keep things changing, never giving his audience’s mind a chance to rest. Forster doesn’t just paint in broad strokes either. Nuanced hints and visual suggestions are peppered throughout the film. Half the time I caught myself noticing things subconsciously, realizing too late to actually observe what it was and anxiously wishing I could go back to see if it was truly there or if I was losing my mind. It’s a disturbing and challenging sensation and one that may not be what some viewers would hope for. As a film it demands you to keep thinking about it after its through with you. That’s a lot to ask for most moviegoers these days.
Stay features a fantastic cast blended perfectly into the director’s mind bending style. Ewan McGregor, who hasn’t really had a chance to show off his acting chops since Big Fish, is excellent as the frantic and passionate Foster. Ryan Gosling stretches himself to amazing new heights with the eccentric and frightening role of Henry. Despite the challenges of the character, Gosling rises to the occasion, offering his best performance ever. Together, the two create and maintain a highly charged tension that strikes from the very beginning and doesn’t let go. Naomi Watts, Kate Burton, and Bob Hoskins form a wonderfully haunting outer circle as the people nearest to Foster and Letham. Their parts are small but they make the most of every second, packing their scenes with tremendous energy and anticipation.
Forster created cinematic gold with last year’s Finding Neverland and his emotionally charged Monster’s Ball quickly earned him the respect of many in Hollywood, despite being only his third movie ever. He has taken a huge risk with this latest project, stretching not only himself and his actors but his audience. Most people will either absolutely love or absolutely hate Stay's eclectic style and unorthodox finish. Again, I warn you, if you like your endings neat, clean, and shockingly exciting this movie is not for you. For my part, I’m glad to have a film that takes nothing for granted and isn’t afraid to leave its audience with a few question marks to muddle on their way out of the theater.