We live in New York City. Everyone’s exhausted.
— Lila (Naomi Watts)
Often evocative, sometimes audacious, and finally undone by an inelegant close, Stay is less interested in story than in impressions, the ways that art invokes and also resists mundane, embodied experience. Beginning with a terrible, wracking car wreck on the Brooklyn Bridge that leaves a vehicle in flames and young, pale Henry (Ryan Gosling) stunned, the movie then begins to work back, inviting you to put together how he came there and what such trauma can even begin to mean.
At its best, Stay is more like an art installation piece than a film, pushing against its two-dimensional constraints and yet weighed down by them. Though somewhat too fond of the morphing transitions and built atop a hoary concept — a moment of death unpeels into multiple layers of experience, memory, and projection — Stay does achieve an eerie reorganization of space (in particular, lower Manhattan), as well as a sometimes shrewd, sometimes nutty investigation of time, as a matter of faith, convenience, and construction.
This investigation begins following the frankly harrowing accident, as Henry walks to the camera, his face pushing into and seemingly through the frame to become the face of someone else, namely, Dr. Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor), awaking from what might be a bad dream, and emerging into his own day. Sam wears a tweedy suit and vest to work, his pants too short, his ankles sockless, and his glasses teetering forward on his nose. He rides his bike to work, a facility where he’s subbing for another shrink, Beth (Janeane Garfolo), currently home and shaky, suffering some kind of “breakdown.” Sam’s first patient is Henry, who resents the shift in treatment and suspects Sam’s good intentions and maybe okay abilities are not up to dealing with his particular ailment.
Henry’s concerns are at once well founded and not at all applicable, in part because his troubles elude naming — except for his curt assertion that he means to kill himself on the coming Saturday night, at midnight. It’s a threat and a promise, and Sam takes it seriously enough (“He’s got it all scheduled”) to consult with the facility’s resident meds dispenser, Dr. Ren (B.D. Wong, his ever practical, wholly compassionate Law & Order: SVU character here barely transformed by a strange wisp on his chin) and his own live-in girlfriend, Lila (Naomi Watts).
While Dr. Ren offers predictable advice, based on how long they might hold an unwilling patient and when the cops will bother to intervene (“They have more important things to do than look for depressed college students”), Lila has a different, more compassionate and less judgmental take. This in part because she has been in Henry’s place, having slashed her own wrists some time before. Her arms still bear the long white scars, and because Sam is both nervous about them and adoring her (and apparently her former doctor), he’s reluctant to speak with her about the situation. But she presses him for information and offers advice (“Tell him there’s too much beauty to quit,” she says, he face pale and her eyes red, “There’s too much goddamn beauty”), an artist — like Henry — wanting to help both “the student,” as Sam tends to call him, and herself.
Sam, in turn, wants her insight but also fears the repercussions. Already, his life seems too entangled in Henry’s, as Sam is increasingly caught up in tracking or confronting his patient (who evinces an uncanny ability to predict hailstorms and disappear). They slip in and out of one another’s existences and spaces, so trains they ride run past one another, and stairways they descend turn into Moebius strips or endless, echoing spirals. At one point, Sam finds Henry as he’s leaving an art history lecture (on Goya and Manet’s self-revisions, delivered by Isaac de Bankole), whereupon they are surrounded by twins — walk-on characters who dress and look alike, unremarked by anyone.
While Stay — which has been shelved for more than a year — obviously knows and wrestles with conventions of telling trauma, it’s also caught up in a reverence for varieties of art — plastic, visual, performance. It’s galvanizing to watch a movie that’s so often not only more of the same (and I can’t remember the last time I sat through an entire closing credits sequence to watch the images underneath, just because they are strange and supple). And yet it is at times very much more of the same, as if losing its nerve, reverting to familiarity, and granting happy endings where they can’t possibly surface.
Director Marc Forster is working from a script by David Benioff. Stay‘s obsession with loss seems of a piece with both their previous interests (Forster’s Finding Neverland, Benioff’s novel/screenplay for 25th Hour, and maybe we’ll forget he worked on Troy as well, though here again, an interest in memory and/as devastation is consistent). The loss in this film is all about New York, comprised here of fractured lights, wet streets, and cultural landmarks (acting students working on Hamlet, late night bookstores and Canal street diners — at one of there, apparently, Henry met the love of his life, a waitress named Athena [Elizabeth Reaser]).
As such pieces come together and fall away, surreal fragments that bleed and splinter, you might be reminded of the close of 25th Hour, where Brian Cox narrates Edward Norton’s impossible future, a dream of love and stability and continuity. This ambitious attempt to remember and remark the pain of 9/11 is here reframed as a less coherent but also less haunting convention, a romantic possibility that turns the breaking up into one of those “it was all a dream” tricks. Stay doesn’t need this ordinary twist, but there it is, blatant and disquieting. While 25th Hour imagined a future with nostalgia for a nonexistent past, this movie is both more hopeful and less believable, its final images so unlike what’s come before that they feel tacked on, a Resolution from nowhere. Pretty to think so, but not nearly so pressing as the temporal and spatial disruptions that loss brings.