2006Director: Mark Forster
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, Ryan Gosling
tay is heroic in its failure. It plays like an extended Night Gallery episode: Bold, conceptual, phoney, insincere, maybe brilliant—probably not. It is as great as it is awful, at times, refreshing and downright thrilling. Forster’s film benefits from the same medium-budget freedom of such movies as Dark City, Impostor, The Jacket, and The Machinist. Psychological sci-fi is enjoying a renaissance of late, similar to the poverty row b-movie noirs of the late ‘30’s and early ‘40’s, producing experimental directors and writers, inventive alternatives to the bland over-marketed movies in wider release. This type of movie is always ridiculed by critics for being a little different—four-dimensional, expressive, genuine. Unlike their bigger budget rivals, these movies don’t need to counter-balance all points of interest by playing with themselves in masturbatory self-reference. They’re honest stories; true fantasy.
Sam (Ewan McGregor) is a psychoanalyst confronted with the enigmatic, suicidal artist Henry. He becomes drawn into Henry’s confusing world of signs and symbols, unable to determine precisely whose nightmare it is that he’s examining. Stay tackles the always-intriguing dilemma of whether it’s better to remain in your own delusions—or escape to an unforgiving reality. The most memorable example of this can be found in Philip K Dick’s dazzling Ubik. Other movies, like The Matrix, Vanilla Sky, and Dark City, thrash around playfully in the conceptual trash of the notion. Forster’s film, however, packs a remarkable emotional resonance, the swirling, Escher-esque set design and violently effective formal fragmentation hinting at the sort of guilt-laced, emotional turmoil Henry is experiencing. The torturous repetitions of scenes, stairwells, glimpses, and tropes run a tight and telling parallel to the broken, anxious sentiments lurking beneath the surface, and to Henry’s cool exterior.
The film’s problems lie mostly in the remote performances of Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor. Each speaks with a slow drawl, careful not to disturb their pulpy American accents. The dialogue is, at times, just awful, a little too aware of itself, but not stylised enough to really zing. Watts, in particular, is hard to believe as a recovered depressive/artist. Maybe she’s too beautiful, maybe it’s how clean her clothes appear when she paints, or maybe it’s because she lacks edge. No matter how many shots I see of her scarred wrists, I can’t seem to shake the idea that she’s never been in real danger in her life. If she were to slit those tanned wrists, like some pretty Hollywood immortal, I imagine they’d instantly heal.
It’s curious, how references to other works of art in literature are perfectly acceptable—and yet, in cinema, they typically ring so false. David Benioff’s script relies too heavily on quotation, leaning rather precariously on the power of greater work. The bottom line, though, is that Stay is incredibly watchable, despite its more frustrating ingredients. The moment before Henry is about to kill himself, the characters of his fantasy scream in protest. Total Recall and Vanilla Sky feature similar tangents: Figments of the imagination begging for continued existence, justifying their reality, hanging in the balance of a conceptual universe. Here, it’s a particularly touching moment, however brief.
The last five minutes of Stay are pure Rod Serling, the apparent situation slowly uncoiling, then lashing back into shape just before it swallows its own tail. It may explain too much, but that’s science-fiction for you; equilibrium is restored, leaving the Big Idea stranded, left to find its own way home.