by Luke Baumgarten & r & Stay & r & You know from the get-go that Stay is going to be triptacular. The film opens with a tire-view shot of a wheel coming off a vehicle on the Brooklyn Bridge. As the wheel tumbles and comes to rest, we can't see the ensuing crash, but we certainly feel it. The central mystery of the film, why Henry Lethem (Ryan Gosling) is so troubled, hinges somehow on that unhinged wheel. We're just not sure how.
Stay plays out the way many nothing-is-as-it-seems thrillers do -- certainly the way The Sixth Sense did. You got yourself a shrink, Sam (Ewan McGregor), and a patient, Henry. To begin, the shrink is sane and the patient isn't. Through the course of the film, though, the psychologist's sanity is tested. Reality, for him, becomes warped; the insane become the sane, etc, etc. This movement, in Stay, is visually gorgeous. As Sam begins to plummet into Henry's world -- or, as his own sanity begins to slip -- the cinematography shifts. Our line of sight suddenly begins bouncing off mirrors and around corners. People walking in tandem are suddenly wearing the same clothes. Camera angles shift and rotate. Shots creatively and bizarrely fade into each other. Sam walks into an elevator and immediately Henry walks off a subway, distorting your sense of time, space and -- most important -- identity.
It's like what you'd get if M.C. Escher illustrated Freud's Interpretation of Dreams. By the time Sam scurries down a never-ending staircase, the kaleidoscopic textures have fully taken over the narrative duties. The dialogue becomes less important than what's going on around it. The more the visuals control the story -- the more dreamlike the film becomes -- the crazier Sam seems. What director Marc Forster has accomplished, in that respect, is stunning. Too bad nothing comes of it.
This is a thriller, after all, not an art installation, and in a thriller, the last twist is key. In a good thriller, the real and the imagined are a hair's breadth apart -- thinking you're alive versus realizing you're dead (in the case of The Sixth Sense, for example). It's a simple feint of perspective that sets the tumblers falling and unlocks the mystery. Though the whole film might be built on suspending disbelief, the kicker should be easy to buy.
Stay's payoff, on the contrary, requires you to hack out the rational part of your brain completely. "Just go with it, dudes," Forster seems to ask us -- but we can't. The ending is utterly ridiculous -- actually less believable than the rest of the film -- and feels tacked on out of necessity. A thriller's final minutes should quietly and assuredly piece the puzzle together for you; Stay just chucks the previous hour-30 in the trash without offering any kind of resolution. The payoff isn't at all convincing. You get to the end, and Forster says, Psych!
So you have a choice, I guess. You can leave in stupefied wonder at the winding story and contorting visuals -- awed and confused. That, of course, means leaving the theater right around when Sam and Henry meet climactically on the Brooklyn Bridge. Or you can stay for the last 10 minutes and, basically, watch the destruction of everything Forster has so painstakingly built up right before your eyes. Neither option is very satisfying.