Evocation of Madness

Washington City Paper | October 27, 2005
An immaculately art-directed plunge into bewilderment, Stay begins with a disorienting car crash that recalls the opening of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Blue. The survivor of the collision, whose name we’ll later learn is Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling), walks toward the camera, and his face suddenly becomes that of Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor)—another doppelgänger, and not just for Henry. Given the similar surnames, Foster may also be a surrogate for director Marc Forster.

On one level, the relationship between the movie’s two principal characters is simple. Henry, despondent after the crash, meets Foster, a psychiatrist who takes him as a patient because the brooding art student’s regular shrink (a briefly encountered Janeane Garofalo) has had a nervous breakdown. In his shortish trousers and longish neo-Edwardian jackets, Foster looks a bit silly, but he’s quite serious about Henry’s announced suicide plans. The doctor’s vivacious girlfriend (Naomi Watts), a painter who happens to teach art at the Manhattan university where Henry studies it, has nasty scars on her wrists, a constant reminder to Sam that some people don’t just talk about killing themselves.

Henry is melancholic and ethereal, with an empty gaze so haunting that it repeatedly summons the Guess Who’s “These Eyes” (although something by the Cure would have been more appropriate). The aspiring painter and determined nihilist has set a date for his death, his 21st birthday, which is just three days away. After a few scenes that explain why Sam can’t simply turn Henry’s case over the authorities, the impassioned shrink becomes a full-time sleuth, searching for clues to Henry’s disposition and plans. Sam’s quest doesn’t lead to orderly exposition, however, but to increasingly subjective and surrealistic perceptions. Camera angles turn oblique, time shifts and stutters, simple doors become teleportation portals, and everyday interiors are rendered strange and ominous.

“Tell me what the truth is,” Sam demands, and Stay eventually does. The disclosure is, of course, a disappointment, encompassing tricks from the repertoire of The Twilight Zone, M. Night Shyamalan, and The Wizard of Oz. Still, as an evocation of madness the film is a lot more effective than In Her Shoes or Proof, two recent movies that summon the specter of inherited schizophrenia only to wriggle away from it. Stay is a jaunty dislocation dance that’s not entirely undercut by the banal conclusion of David Benioff’s script.

Forster uses lots of special effects, yet Stay recalls Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, which conjured a profound sense of alienation by using only razor-edge editing and striking locations. As he demonstrated with the Spike Lee–directed 25th Hour, Benioff has a thing for dream visions of New York, and this movie sends its characters through a series of actual atriums, corridors, and staircases that blur the boundary between industrial chic and nightmare backdrop. At a time when every other American director seems to be going for the exact same shot of the Manhattan skyline or the Hollywood hills, Stay shows us places we’ve never seen before. And that’s an experience that very nearly justifies the film’s prosaic payoff.

Washington City Paper

In a city where a great deal of attention is focused on national affairs, Washington City Paper maintains a relentless emphasis on local Washington. City Paper serves as the definitive local guide to cultural and civic life in the District...
More »
Contact for Reprint Rights
  • Market Served: Metropolitan Area
  • Address: 1400 I St. NW, Suite 900, Washington, DC 20005
  • Phone: (202) 332-2100