Tasteful Hints of Death: the Ambiguities of Stay
“An elegant suicide is the ultimate work of art,” says Lila Culpepper (Naomi Watts) at one point in Stay, and it makes sense in context. Working in the deliberately ambiguous tradition of The Sixth Sense, Donnie Darko, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the makers of Stay are not so much concerned with creating a coherent storyline as composing a film noir mood piece on big city alienation, guilt, and insanity. It doesn’t quite hold together, but I like films that tease you with some deeper secret under the surface.
So what happens? I’m not sure. In the beginning, an accident takes place at night: a tire blows out on Brooklyn Bridge and/or a young man torches his vehicle and walks away from the crime scene. We focus on Henry Letham’s (Ryan Gosling’s) impassive face that morphs into the face of Ewan McGregor (as a psychiatrist named Sam Foster) bicycling to work in a large, impersonal, but expensively tasteful office building in New York. Looking burned out, unwashed, and depressed, Henry Letham shows up for his psychiatric appointment and announces that he hears voices. He also likes to burn things because he’s “practicing for Hell,” and he plans on committing suicide on Saturday evening, about three days away. Foster considers committing him, but then lets him go after Henry says he’ll visit again. Intrigued by his new case, in part because Henry can predict the future, Sam suddenly morphs back home to his impeccably grey and tasteful Pottery Barn yuppie apartment to talk for awhile with his artist girlfriend Naomi Watts, who, it so happens, has attempted suicide not too long ago by slashing her wrists in the bathtub. Sam offers to take a bath with her (in a bathroom that looks as much fun in its artful way as the one in Psycho), but then he finds out that she hasn’t been taking her Klonopin because she can’t paint on meds. He’s worried she might try to kill herself again. She, on the other hand, would like to meet Henry.
For much of the rest of the film, Sam investigates Henry’s weird case, trying to track down his former girlfriend Athena who used to wait tables in a diner. When it finally becomes time to commit Henry to the asylum for delusional, suicidal tendencies, Sam and some mental health officials break into Henry’s apartment just to find some bullets and “Forgive me” written in tiny print millions of time all over the walls. At another point, Sam happens to play chess with a blind colleague (Bob Hoskins) in their tastefully modernist office building, when Henry shows up, freaks out, and says the blind man is his father, only his father has been dead for months.
Stay is difficult to write about without mocking it slightly, and I can see how other viewers might find it a bunch of hooey over nothing, but I liked the way its plot is almost unimportant compared to its use of set design, thematic repetition of images, and editing where one scene always morphs or match cuts into the next. Compared to most mainstream releases, Stay is anti-commercial and oddly experimental.
The film has the effect of a dream that keeps trying to maintain its reality, but increasingly fails, and meanwhile everyday incidents carry ominous overtones. After awhile, in the rainy night city streets, Sam starts to experience the same thing twice. His investigation becomes a labyrinth that keeps circling back on itself like a spiraling staircase, and one increasingly gets the feeling that Sam is Henry on some level, perhaps, and that all the identically dressed twins and triplets he keeps walking by betray that we’re in some alternate reality. In the city, as Lila says, “everyone is exhausted.” There are dead sparrows by the tree that was struck by lightning, a stripper in a peep show bar dancing incongruously in front of the rear projection of home movies of Henry’s youth. Are we in the land between the living and the dead? I still don’t know, but in its mannered, dark way, Stay suggests how one’s life may look in retrospect--a series of random scenes with one’s passions neutralized by time and distance. It is our job to decipher what, if anything, they signify.