Judge Michael Rankins won't fetch, roll over, or play dead.
Between the worlds of the living and the dead, there is a place you're not supposed to stay.
Take an intricate screenplay by the writer of 25th Hour and Troy. Add a dazzling visual interpretation by the acclaimed director of Monster's Ball and Finding Neverland. Stir in a cast of solid actors. Now tightly wrap the ingredients in a marketing campaign conceived by ad executives who either never saw the movie, or completely misunderstood it if they did see it. Shake well.
You've just read a recipe for turning $50 million dollars into less than $4 million in six weeks. The dish? It's called Stay.
Facts of the Case
Psychiatrist Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor, Big Fish) just inherited an intriguing new patient from his ailing colleague, Dr. Beth Levy (Janeane Garofalo, Wonderland). The patient, Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling, The Notebook), is a tormented young art student who recently totaled his car on a New York City bridge. Sam's early encounters with Henry reveal both a puzzle and a problem. The puzzle: Henry appears to foresee future events he has no logical means of knowing about, like the impending onset of a freak hailstorm on a cloudless day. The problem: Henry intends to take his own life at midnight on his twenty-first birthday, only three days hence.
Sam understands the suicidal mind all too well, not only because he's a psychiatrist who specializes in difficult clinical cases, but also because his girlfriend Lila (Naomi Watts, The Ring Two) still bears on her wrists the scars from her own suicide attempt, from which Sam rescued her. Determined to save Henry also, Sam delves into the young man's past. The facts Sam uncovers only serve to deepen Henry's mystery.
Before long, Sam finds himself entwined an increasingly bizarre set of circumstances that have him questioning his own sanity as much as Henry's. In his fervor to rescue his patient, will the good doctor lose himself?
It's difficult to discuss the plot of a film like Stay, or even to mention other films of which it's reminiscent, without revealing its central surprise. So I'll avoid doing either. Suffice it to say that if the direction Stay is ultimately headed isn't apparent to you from the opening sequence—or at the very least, by halfway through the film—you don't get out to the movies (or down to the DVD store) much.
Of course, even a shopworn premise can be entertaining if done well, and here's where Stay makes up at least some of the difference. Director Marc Forster has crafted a visually arresting film that's often startling in its imagery, and freed an exceptional cast to create some of their best individual performances. The latter is a Forster trademark—he guided Halle Berry to an Oscar-winning turn in Monster's Ball, and nearly did the same with Johnny Depp in Finding Neverland. Here, Forster gets superb dramatic performances from expected sources (stars Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, and Bob Hoskins are each at the top of his or her game) as well as from those less predictable (former Mouseketeer Ryan Gosling is a revelation, and the usually comic Janeane Garofalo plays a dark role completely straight).
McGregor, with the most screen time, does a fair amount of the film's heavy lifting, and he carries his conflicted role with skill. McGregor's Sam Foster is a genuine, compassionate soul with an appalling taste in haberdashery—the hems of his trouser legs would have to make a long-distance call to converse with his shoes (Sam, you made the pants too short), and he favors the rumpled, tweedy look of a 1970s Ivy Leaguer gone to seed. As fine as his performance otherwise is, I found McGregor's efforts to incorporate an American accent distracting. Or, more accurately, McGregor appeared to find the accent distracting, and the effects of his distraction in turn distracted me. The accent itself sounds perfect if you close your eyes and listen, but watching McGregor talk, he chews around his words unnaturally, as though his accustomed Scottish burr were a hornet buzzing about in his mouth, desperate to escape.
That same kind of desperation characterizes director Forster's visual approach. I suspect he realized early on that astute viewers would suss out Stay's big reveal a mile away—the tagline hung on the movie by the Fox marketing gurus practically screams the denouement in the audience's collective ear—so Forster attempts to redeem the ticket price with a surfeit of arthouse camera trickery, psychedelic images, and what feels like manic energy by the film's end. It's a ton of pictorial weight for a relatively lightweight thriller to bear. Consequently, my eyeballs needed peace and quiet after the movie concluded.
Screenwriter David Benioff does a nice job giving us characters to care about in the midst of all the mumbo-jumbo. Each of the main players gets at least a showcase scene or two, and the actors are up to the challenge. Bob Hoskins—who, like his countryman Michael Caine, turns up in so many films that it's easy to overlook just how good he is in almost all of them—turns in especially memorable work as Sam's mentor, a blind professor who becomes unexpectedly entangled in the flow of strange events.
Stay is, at its core, a smart film that doesn't take its audience for granted. It expects the viewer to latch on and follow along, even when the going gets murky. I respect that. As a reviewer and movie fan, I see far too many motion pictures that presume I'm as much an idiot as the people making the films. It's refreshing to see a thriller that at least gives me some credit for my intelligence. I only wish that it didn't make me work quite so hard to exercise that intelligence, and that it gave me something a bit more ingenious in the end in exchange for my hard work.
Potential viewers should also be aware that, despite the tone of the trailer and TV spots they may have seen prior to Stay's theatrical run, it isn't a horror film. It's haunting and unsettling, but it's not a gorefest or a zombie flick or anything remotely close. If distaste for the fright genre was the primary obstacle keeping you from checking the film out—thanks for nothing, Fox marketing department—go ahead and sample it anyway. (But if you have nightmares, don't blame me.)
Fox's Stay arrives on a dual-sided disc with a fullscreen transfer on the "A" side (because people who watch movies in pan-and-scan when they don't have to aren't always bright enough to master flipping the disc over) and a sumptuous 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer on the reverse. In regard to the latter, it's a technically accomplished presentation—as good as any I've seen from Fox recently. The numerous dark scenes in the film are consistently deep and clear without swallowing the details. Brighter sequences are crisp and clean. The Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track provides excellent depth and fullness, with good use of the surrounds and no harsh tones. Great job, Fox. (Now can we ditch the fullscreen fraud, please?)
I was disappointed to discover that there isn't a full-length commentary on the disc. Two collections of brief, scene-specific audio commentaries, however, helped assuage my angst somewhat. One group of five scenes receives analysis from director Marc Forster and costar Ryan Gosling (who, for those fanatical about such minutia, pronounces his surname with a definite "s" at the end of the first syllable, not a "z" like the Trailer Guy uses); another batch of seven gets the breakdown from Forster and members of his visual creative team. All of the speakers contribute outstanding insights into the production process in general and the making of this film specifically. It would have been even better had the group simply covered the entire film from beginning to end, but with the quality of these short commentaries, we'll take what we get.
Two featurettes offer narrowcasting for viewers with specific interests. The aurally inclined will enjoy "The Music of Stay," featuring interviews with musician-composers Thad Spencer, Tom Scott, Richard Werbowenko, and Chris Beaty of the recording collective Asche and Spencer (known more for their work in advertising than in film), discussing the creation of the film's unique, complex score. Viewers who enjoy listening to everyday folks chat at slumber-inducing length about their "near-death experiences"—and if you're one of those viewers, may I suggest finding a hobby?—will embrace the "Departing Visions" featurette.
One minor gripe with the manner in which the supplements are presented: The commentaries and "Departing Visions" featurette appear on the widescreen side of the disc; the music featurette and the film's theatrical trailer are located on the fullscreen side. Viewers who only look at the menus on one side of the disc may miss some of the content. It seems to me that this confusing setup could have been avoided with a bit of forethought. (Or by ditching the fullscreen transfer altogether. But that's just me.)
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of these days, Naomi Watts is going to pry herself away from these freaky genre pictures and get a real job.
Oh, yeah. King Kong.
There's nothing wrong, and everything right, with a good puzzle. There are films (Memento and The Usual Suspects are two examples that come immediately to mind) in which the puzzle is merely a clever framework for a compelling story. There are other films in which the puzzle is pretty much all that's on the table (M. Night Shyamalan, I'm talking about your oeuvre here)—once the mystery is no longer a mystery, the rest of the exercise becomes pointless.
Stay wants to be the former. It mostly succeeds at being the latter. But there's enough of the former in it that those who fancy this sort of cryptic psychological voodoo may find this just the sort of cryptic psychological voodoo they fancy. Neither the acting nor the production values will disappoint, so if you're still reading at this point in the review, you might give it a spin.
For trotting out an overused cinematic device and exploiting it, the Judge sentences Stay to community service at a local mental health clinic. Just be careful of the weird kid who hears voices in his head. Of course, that describes everyone at the local mental health clinic. Don't ask me how I know.
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Scales of Justice
• Scene-Specific Audio Commentaries Featuring Director Marc Forster and Actor Ryan Gosling
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