Stay is not a violent film. There’s only a single, very effective moment of mayhem and that’s conveyed mainly through sound effects and camera angles rather than extended, wincing shots of gore. But, from the first few moments, the viewer is shown a version of New York City where every light is harsh, every surface hard, every edge dangerous. Metal, glass, broad barren wooden floors, and impossibly long, Escher-like staircases enclose the characters in a world where nothing quite makes sense. The result is a movie that very quickly gets under your skin and stays there.
The plot is deceptively simple. Ewan McGregor plays Sam Foster, a psychiatrist determined to prevent art student Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling) from committing suicide. Henry is a waifish, plainly disturbed young man who insists Sam’s blind mentor, Leon (Bob Hoskins) is his own dead father, and who keeps uttering apparently senseless, but weirdly predictive phrases ("I didn’t move them. I know you’re not supposed to…") that turn up later in the mouths of other characters. As time passes and Foster becomes increasingly obsessed with saving Henry, the line between the two men becomes blurred. Is Henry Letham actually Sam Foster, or is Foster actually Lethem? Whose dream or hallucination is this? Is one of these men dead? Are both?
Horror and fantasy aficionados will recognize this plot device from other films. Movies as varied as Jacob’s Ladder, The Machinist, American Psycho, and more venerable classics like The Innocents and Robert Wise’s The Haunting, to varying degrees, have invited the audience to second guess the reliability of the protagonists. This does not make Stay any less disturbing. Nobody in the audience is going to jump in their seats and scream every few minutes, but the sense of dread, of someone slowly and unwillingly approaching an unbearable truth, sets in like a chill, especially in the wonderfully stark, ghostly scene where Sam interviews Henry’s mother (Kate Burton) in an empty house.
Ewan McGregor and Ryan Gosling give a fascinating, pas-de-deux of a performance, in which Sam’s grip on the bizarre reality of the film becomes increasingly tenuous while Henry’s becomes increasingly sure – if no less suicidal. Naomi Watts is Lila, Sam’s artist girlfriend whose wrists are still horribly scarred from her own attempt at suicide, and Elizabeth Reaser is Athena, an aspiring actress who may – or may not – be Henry Lethem’s girlfriend. Janine Garofolo offers an effective turn as the surprisingly punkish and self-destructive therapist who had passed Henry’s case over to Sam, and as Leon, Bob Hoskins’ performance veers from the avuncular, to the belligerent, to a moment of joy and delight that saves the viewer from coming away with a sense of utter hopelessness.
But it’s Director Marc Foster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland), Director of Photography Roberto Schaefer, and visual effects designer Kevin Tod Huag who truly deserve credit for creating a hallucinogenic dreamscape of a city that’s as compelling as the characters. Stay is not for everyone. Fans looking for a traditional carnival ride of a horror film are likely to be disappointed. But for those in the mood for more cerebral fare, this film will be a richly detailed, fascinating, and insightful puzzle that should prompt many to go back for a second look.