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Film Review ***: ‘Stay’ for the Experience, Not the Story

Forster Delivers Artsy Thrill Ride With Postmodern Abandon

By Rosa Cao


Directed by Mark Forster

Written by David Benioff

Starring Ewan McGregor, Ran Gosling, Naomi Watts

Rated R

Opens Today

First the scene: the Brooklyn Bridge arching overhead, a swirling, crackling aurora of fate. Then the thrills: swooping vertiginous shots from out-of-body angles, framed in fearful urban symmetries. High frequency patterns hum with urgency, from the watching windows of the city’s high-rises in their ubiquitous thousands, to the cramped handwriting covering the walls of Henry’s apartment: “Forgive me”.

Who is Henry? It soon becomes clear that identities are as fluid as the blood dripping from almost everyone in one scene or another. The dead wander in and wander out again; he’s my father, no I’m your son, the blind can see, Henry is the holy madman, and none of it matters.

But in the beginning, when the movie is still pretending that it has a story to tell that will make sense, Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling) is the suicidal artist college student, and Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor) is his shrink. For a movie that starts in therapy, “Stay” spends remarkably little time on dialogue; the best lines in the script come from Hamlet: “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” delivered beautifully by the memorable Athena (Elizabeth Reaser), who radiates dignity, normality, and a refreshing sanity. Aside from her, the characterizations are as sparse as the dialogue; obsession and urgency overwhelm any depth of personality.

A number of scenes were hilarious, although it’s not obvious that this was intentional. In one, Henry develops a sudden bullet wound to the head (no shots fired) and starts bleeding profusely while confused passersby gawk. Traffic (and time) stops. Henry just looks resigned. The humor of the absurd is everywhere, perhaps an inevitable side effect when a “thriller” deals in melodramatic themes while throwing narrative conventions so enthusiastically overboard.

When you’ve seen everything there is to see, when you’ve arranged and rearranged all the possible combinations in “Stay,” the pieces still don’t fit; you realize they weren’t meant to fit, but rather to appeal to some aesthetic ideal. Oh, there’s an explanation all right that I won’t give away here, (some might call it a gimmick), but it’s clear that making sense is not the point of the show.

“Stay” is not like “Memento,” where one person’s brain damage still slices the world into neat enough strips that when you arrange them right, a clear narrative unfolds. No, the brand of mental illness experienced here is contagious, leaping from Henry to everyone around him, and straight out to you. Reality dissolves into art; it doesn’t take too many perturbations to warp the sharp lines of our world into an unrecognizable whirl.

Unlike those in other recent movies (“Fight Club,” “A Beautiful Mind”), this portrayal of madness is no portrayal at all, but simply visual beauty spinning out of control.

Forster takes 98 minutes of sensation and fills them with tantalizing symbols and disturbing repetitions: gloomy enclosed stairs running into shiny threatening ones, an engagement ring flashing in the dark, a little boy with a silver balloon, the phrase “your troubles will cease and fortune will smile upon you” — but they are symbols adrift, ripped free from their moorings, from every referent and antecedent, as are we.

In the end, “Stay” is a movie made of disorientation, about the mind unsheathed and unprotected, highlighting the fragility of sanity and interpretation. The movie rejects interpretation; why bother with thinking when your brain is just the viscera of your skull, and the ride is more than enough?