“Your troubles will cease and fortune will smile upon you”
I remember my head spinning about Stay after leaving the theatre. Not because David Benioff‘s script or Marc Forster‘s direction proved nuanced enough to shield the “reality” of what’s going on for any authentic surprise, but due to its visceral impact. The Guess Who‘s “These Eyes” cannot play without my recalling the experience of grinding metal and dizzying light accompanying its melody. I bought the DVD the day it released and scoured the extra features to learn about certain cues to watch when revisiting: the camera’s low angled vantage point, the shortening of pant legs, etc. And while I’ll admit seeing it again a decade later shows flaws, my emotional reaction remains the same as nostalgia allows any newfound clarity towards blatant foreshadowing or its neatly wrapped conclusion of optimism rising from tragedy to wash away.
Forster is often dismissed as a hack with critics proving as derisive as possible whenever he’s attached to a new work. Personally, I never saw why. The span of Monster’s Ball to The Kite Runner was fantastic cinema and a testament to his keen choices within the Hollywood system. Stay is perhaps his crowning achievement during that era, a spectacular feat of visual style with impossibly seamless transitions, littered frames of doubled and/or tripled extras, and the glorious abstraction of a car crash in all its kinetic terror. For every subtle allusion to the bigger picture such as cutting Dr. Foster (Ewan McGregor) and Henry Latham (Ryan Gosling) in conversation by showing each in identical profiles rather than opposing comes an in-your-face transformation from one to the other, but that duality isn’t supposed to be a secret.
The film begins with the first-person tumble of a crash—the catalyst for all that follows. Seeing Henry sitting in sorrow on the Brooklyn Bridge next to his burning car is nothing if not a jarring head-scratcher of a transition. Is this the same crash? Is the first merely nightmare while the second a glimpse of a disturbed mind’s reality? The boy arriving in the office of Dr. Foster would seem to express those exact sentiments, especially when he declares he’s going to kill himself Saturday at midnight. This revelation would be plot enough in most films, pitting caregiver against broken soul to eventually come out the other side. Here, however, the idea of suicide is just one more double to pair with Foster’s girlfriend Lila’s (Naomi Watts) own failed attempt years earlier.
More coincidences rise to the surface like Lila and Henry both being artists, character actors like John Tormey popping up as different people, and repeated moments both noticed by those in the film (Jessica Hecht‘s son losing his balloon) and only by us (fluid morphs back and forth through time to disorient and introduce with full transparency the fabrication of the world onscreen). Saying such isn’t necessarily a spoiler because we still don’t know exactly what’s happening courtesy of Benioff ensuring the meat of his script proves anything but tidy. Plot holes are intentionally constructed, forks in roads are traversed with little resolution, and we’re given insight into the lives of so many people that it can’t be the dream of one person. There’s something more to it and yet discovering that answer is ultimately inconsequential.
I say this because even when the curtain is lifted and we see the truth, the “dream” seeps into reality just as recollections of reality permeated the “dream”. Is there reason for such a conundrum or is it simply a flourish by Benioff and Forster to leave us in the dark despite shining their light? At the very least it helps the audience move past generic narrative conventions and see the piece as a poetic manifestation of our emotions and the power of relationships and love. Gosling’s performance is a large part of this too—so tortured, sad, and ravaged by guilt that we know what has happened before we even know something did. It becomes less about why Foster and Henry are merging into one and more about their human connections. It’s about love and loss and second chances, compassion and empathy in a world full of chaos.
Fate plays a large role too in everyone coming together as well as the tragedy at its center. With death comes rebirth, the Gods realigning balance by removing couples that have run their course and replacing them with new ones yet to flourish. This symbiotic cycle is portrayed visually as well in the never-ending puzzles of stairwells folding back onto themselves in time and space—control completely out of mankind’s hands. Insights into the future become déjà vu moments as the intertwining of universes becomes more solid than we should expect. And the shimmering of lights like bands of sound waves pulsing through the atmosphere provide a window from one to the other, showing the similarities and differences as though both are the same story compounded. One approaching the crash as the other leaves it behind.
Stay invites multiple viewings and an open mind to look beyond its surface. The fact Henry and Foster exist separate from each other even as we’re to believe they’re the same shows how appearances are merely the bridge to get where we need to go. A recognizable cast of Bob Hoskins, Janeane Garofalo, BD Wong, Elizabeth Reaser, Kate Burton, and Mark Margolis makes us pay closer attention because their characters must be more than throwaways. They have something to say, something to repeat, and a purpose to express the convergence of sorrow and hope. Those two feelings have gone hand-in-hand throughout time as older generations make way for new, conclusions and commencements meeting at countless points in the universe. Such is life—a finite journey of unknown obstacles and joy we cherish until it’s time to move on.