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Reviewed by Gary Mitchel, © 2005

Format: Movie
By:   Mark Forster (director)
Genre:   Surreal mystery
Released:   October 21, 2005
Review Date:   November 01, 2005

I don't know what's real anymore. — Dr. Foster

Some movies are thrilling action yarns that take you on a great ride. Others are scary supernatural tales that attempt to send chills down your spine. There are even fluffy romances that warm your heart.

Then there are movies that are just head jobs, where the point of the film is to make you spend most of the experience confused, disoriented and wondering what the heck you're watching. The most famous head-job flick is Eraserhead, with other notables being Videodrome, Vanilla Sky and Jacob's Ladder. These movies are surreal and disturbing, and keep you wondering if what's happening to the characters is real, a dream or drug-induced visions. They also have many different ways they can be interpreted, giving rise to many essays about the "meaning" of the film. People tend to either love or hate them. Stay is the latest entry in the head job category.

The movie opens with no titles, but strange images of moving along a road. The camera tosses about, hurtling forward, and ends up staring up at the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. We then shift to see Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling) sitting beside his smashed and burning car. After a few moments, he gets up and walks away. We are then introduced to psychologist Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor) as he wakes up, which could mean that the previous scene was a dream. Or it might not, as we follow him as he bicycles to work (across the Brooklyn Bridge, which is also on four paintings over Dr. Foster's bed), meets his art-teacher fiance Lila (Naomi Watts) and has his first session with Henry.

It seems that after torching his car on the bridge, Henry's been attending court-ordered therapy with Beth Levy (Janeane Garofalo). However, Dr. Levy has had to take a leave of absence due to exhaustion and Sam is filling in for her. This brings Sam, like us, into the story in the middle of things. Henry seems edgy and sad, and predicts a hailstorm from a clear blue sky before leaving. Later, while Sam and Lila share coffee and lunch, the promised hailstorm arrives.

In their next session, Henry tells Sam that he also hears voices, that he's sure he's going to hell for something he's done, and that on Saturday (just three days away), he will kill himself. This sets off a ticking clock as Sam has to now try and unravel what's wrong with Henry, figure out his supposed damnable offense, and prevent the suicide.

We follow Sam as he digs into Henry's background, meeting people from his past, tries to contact Dr. Levy about her sessions with Henry, and has discussions with Lila, whom we find out was a patient of Sam's who had attempted her own suicide before they were engaged. We also follow Henry as he wanders the city getting himself ready for his suicide and is tortured by strange visions.

As the movie unfolds, and Sam moves deeper into Henry's world, things get progressively stranger. Henry claims a friend of Sam's, fellow psychologist Dr. Patterson (Bob Hoskins), is actually his dead father. Sam meets a woman claiming to be Henry's mother, but then discovers she's supposed to be dead as well. He keeps seeing the same events replay themselves. Images repeat themselves over and over again. Some people reappear as several different characters, and the crowds around the characters start becoming filled with sets of twins, triplets and more. Most of this is very subtle at first, but by the end of the movie we are in full-blown hallucinations where Sam (and those of us watching) can't tell what's real and what isn't. This all leads to the climax on the Brooklyn Bridge where Sam has to try and prevent Henry's suicide plan.

Most of the movie is a mystery, as we try to figure out what happened to Henry on the bridge, whether Sam going insane, what is and isn't real, and just where this movie is leading us.

Unlike some head job movies, the end actually reveals what has been going on the whole time . . . maybe. Probably. It's still somewhat open for interpretation. I'm also glad that what I assumed was the twist from the previews isn't the central mystery, unlike another "what's the secret" film I saw.

Visually, the movie is very well done. The subtle effects all slowly pile up until you can't help noticing them. Stay also has some of the best transitions I've seen in a very long time. Forster has a very strong vision, and keeps the film looking exactly where he wants, and he gets some great performances out of the cast.

Stay is an interesting, ambitious film destined to be debated and dissected by film students. It will leave you either unsettled and annoyed or excited and satisfied, depending on how much you love to dig for metaphors and symbolism. If you are into movies that play with your head, and reality, you will enjoy Stay. If you like straightforward films that don't do their best to make you wonder where you are, you probably won't. It's a little long, though, and the end reveal could have been handled a little better — it should have either been more clear or stayed ambiguous enough for more interpretations. As it is, the film tries to have its cake and go fishing too.

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