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Striking Visuals Fail to Overcome Narrative Clichés

Directed by Marc Forster (Finding Neverland, Monster's Ball) and written by David Benioff (Troy, The 25th Hour), Stay is a psychological mystery/thriller undermined by a flashy visual style that functions primarily to distract viewers from both an underwritten storyline and a dramatic payoff that succeeds in creating an element of surprise (and not much else). Stay borrows a "surprise" ending that's only mildly surprising, but isn't particularly original. In fact, Stay's ending owes far too much to Rod Serling's "The Twilight Zone", a television series that went off the air more than forty years ago (of course, it hasn't stopped filmmakers like M. Night Shyamalan and his imitators from recycling Serling's decades-old ideas for contemporary audiences unfamiliar with "The Twilight Zone").

Dr. Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor), a New York City psychiatrist prone to wearing tweed jackets, loose ties, unfashionably short pants, and sock-free shoes, acquires a new patient, Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling), a tortured, suicidal artist. Henry, angry, confused, and in despair, speaks cryptically of sins and Hell. He displays signs of schizophrenia or paranoia (he hears voices inside his head). Henry even gives a date and time for his suicide (three days from their first meeting, midnight, but no location).

Henry also seems to have the ability to foresee the future, forecasting an afternoon hailstorm that occurs moments after he leaves Foster's office. Not surprisingly, Foster becomes concerned with saving Henry, even as he neglects his artist girlfriend, Lila Culpepper (Naomi Watts). Lila shares similar traits with Henry. She suffers from severe depression (or other unspecified emotional issues) and suicidal inclinations.

Foster becomes an amateur detective, seeking the advice of Dr. Leon Patterson (Bob Hoskins), Sam's friend and former mentor. Henry's former psychiatrist, Dr. Beth Levy (Janeane Garofalo) proves to be of little help (she has serious emotional problems of her own). Foster also obtains counsel from another psychiatrist, Dr. Ren (B.D. Wong), who suggests that Henry be held for observation. Reality, or what Foster believes is his reality, warps and changes around Sam, allowing dreams and memories (someone else's) to seep into his life.

Henry appears almost magically at Sam's meeting with Leon, becoming distraught, claiming that Leon is, in fact, his deceased father. Lila's behavior also grows suspicious, but Foster clings, however, tenaciously, to his ordered reality. Another encounter, this time with Henry's mother, Mrs. Letham (Kate Burton), who confuses Sam for Henry, further destabilizes Sam's grip on reality. Athena (Elizabeth Reaser), Henry's sometime girlfriend, suggests Athena and Sam have met before, somewhere, sometime, but Sam thinks otherwise. Meanwhile, Henry's midnight appointment approaches.

Forster tricks up David Benioff's script by employing jump cuts, CGI-assisted transition shots or wipes, and skewed camera angles to suggest a world and reality out of balance. Unfortunately, no one bothered to inform Forster that skewed camera angles in genre films (read: supernatural thrillers) have been so severely overused by lesser directors in lesser films that they've lost whatever effectiveness they might have had. The wipes and transitions aren't as distracting as the skewed camera angles, but could have been used more judiciously. Add in jump cuts and the Pi-camera (a camera attached by a harness to the chest of a character, first used extensively in Darren Aronosky's Pi) and it's more than clear that Forster decided to cover up narrative deficiencies with stylistic tricks.

There are, however, visual cues (i.e., doubles, triplets, and scenes that repeat) that add to a sense of dislocation and slippage between the real and the unreal, where the laws of causality have been suspended or twisted to conform to the logic (or illogic) of dreams. It's here, where the visual cues aren't foregrounded by camera moves or editing that Stay proves to be the most effective in creating an eerie, disquieting mood. Unfortunately, no amount of style can make up for the unimaginative finale, even though it offers a modicum of hope for several characters. Sadly, Forster and Benioff couldn't find a reasonable, coherent alternative to an ending that depends, in whole or in part, on deceiving the audience.

More importantly, Stay manages to avoid venturing too closely to Vanilla Sky or The Sixth Sense territory (the more or less recent release of both films means that other films, other filmmakers are prohibited from reusing them until a reasonable amount of time has passed, so audiences can be surprised all over again by their clever plot turns, twists, and revelations). If Stay is any indication, Forster and Benioff aren't suited for genre work and should return to more serious-minded, literary productions (but please, no more Troys or Finding Neverlands).

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars