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
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.