The key to appreciating this movie is to look at it’s gorgeous, textured, tattoed skin. Ignore the plot. Don’t be drawn too deeply into the mystery. Instead, look at it as though you’re in a museum of surrealist art.
R for language, disturbing images
Ewan McGregor plays Sam, a psychiatrist. We meet him when a patient, Henry (Ryan Gosling) comes to a session, surprised to see him. Henry’s usual doctor is sick, and Sam is filling in.
The story is driven by Henry’s stated goal of killing himself on Saturday night at midnight. Sam, of course, can’t let that happen. Not only does his profession demand it, but after barely rescuing former patient and current girlfriend Lila (Naomi Watts) from a suicide attempt, he couldn’t handle losing another patient.
Sam seeks help from his friend (B.D. Wong) at the state hospital, but it’s still early in the week, and if Sam were to have Henry committed, he’d be out before the weekend. So Stay follows these characters for the week.
But there’s something else going on, too. Right from the start Director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland) lets us know that there is some connection between Sam and Henry. And all throughout the film, the visual language of surrealism permeates.
The movie is incredibly textured. It’s a great-looking, finely woven tapestry. There are reflections and obstructions and mind-bending transitions from scene to scene. For what it tries and for what it accomplishes, visually and artistically, Stay deserves a recommendation.
One of the most interesting interviews I’ve conducted in recent years was with director Elias Merhige (Suspect Zero). We digressed to his earlier film Begotten, which was very avant garde. Merhige was keenly interested in melding the art of experimental film with the wider appeal of mainstream movies. Although I didn’t end up recommending Suspect Zero, parts of it haunted me for days.
Watching Stay, I sensed a kinship with Merhige’s blend of experimental film with mainstream feature storytelling. If Merhige was influenced by experimental and avant-garde work, Marc Forster was influenced by surrealism.
It would be fair to complain that the style is overbearing, or that it’s too obsessed with obstruction and reflection. But it’s not fair to say that the style is gratuitous. The “artiness” is justified. It may be laid on a little thick, but the fact that it’s there is not gratuitous.
The movie’s great style is justified by the mystery of the plot. We suspect from the beginning that there will be some “Sixth Sense” twist that will explain everything, perhaps too neatly.
And indeed, that’s what happens.
The tragedy is that most of us, being primed to look for the mystery, will be content when it is revealed. We’ll think about how mundane it is, and condemn the whole movie for having some lame twist.
I say “tragedy” because I don’t think that’s what Forster intended. I think the mystery is a red herring. It’s the MacGuffin. It’s not important. It’s his excuse to blend film art with mainstream movies. And yet because of the primacy of plot, most people will fail to appreciate Forster’s great visual accomplishment.
Stay earns a recommendation. It does something few other movies try to do; it introduce art (not just craft, or prettiness, or gorgeous photography, but meaningful art) to a feature film.
A more daring movie would just be art, without trying to justify itself. It wouldn’t tack on a mystery to “explain” it all to a mass audience. It would assume the audience were smart enough to deal with the art on its own level.
Nevertheless, Forster has put up a gorgeous, textured, meaningful, multimedia shadow play on the wall at your local movie theater. You can appreciate it as deeply as you like.