Mindfark. There’s no more easily digestible—or printable—way to describe what director Marc Forster and writer David Benioff set out to create in Stay, a twisted, looping journey through the New York of a suicidal young artist’s double-timing consciousness.
That the aforementioned young artist is very likely dying throughout the course of the movie, yet may be perfectly non-suicidal—and that he may, in fact, be anything but an artist—is but one small testament to the filmmakers’ collective mindfarking acumen.
Henry Letham is the possibly suicidal questionable artist in question. Played by Ryan Gosling (an up-and-comer in the handsome/brooding mold who starred in the frigid Montana epic The Slaughter Rule), Henry is not only handsome and brooding, he seems to have a rather contentious relationship with reality; when Henry and reality go head-to-head, it’s usually reality that bends first.
That’s the lesson learned by Dr. Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor), a psychiatrist who tangles metaphysical jet-streams with Henry while filling in for an ailing colleague. After Henry tells him he intends to commit suicide several days hence, things begin to get tweaky for the good doctor, in an exponentially startling manner: his girlfriend calls him “Henry;” he hears the voices in Henry’s head manifested in other characters; he finds himself descending a never-ending stone stairway; he suffers a painful bite from the dead dog of a dead woman. That’s just for starters.
Because the intellectual content of mindfark movies so often resides in the stratosphere, exceptional acting performances are nearly indispensable as a grounding agent. For the most part, Stay’s cast delivers, beginning with McGregor’s inhabitation of Foster. The Scottish-born actor continues his resurgence from the morass of the second Star Wars trilogy with a nuanced performance, moving Foster from a position of compassionate self-assuredness to one of fragmented near-mania.
Gosling’s turn as Henry is somewhat less shaded, rarely breaking from the twin modes of menacing fatalism and helpless confusion. But Gosling turns those tricks well enough to allow at least a minor emotional investment in the character, just enough to justify the doctor’s obsession with saving the young man.
As Foster’s formerly suicidal girlfriend Lila, Naomi Watts leads a supporting cast that further strengthens Stay’s roots. The dynamic between Foster and Lila that develops as Foster moves farther and farther from the tethers of reality is one of Stay’s genuine pleasures, as Benioff’s script slowly inverts the balance of power between the two characters. Throw in brief but powerful appearances from Bob Hoskins and Janeane Garofalo as the doctor’s colleagues, and it’s clear that Forster—who drew fine performances out of Billy Bob Thornton and Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, as well as from Johnny Depp and Kate Winslet in Finding Neverland—is right at home managing A-level talent.
Forster also shows an uncanny, Lynchian ability to paint unreality with arresting colors. For example: A scene in which Henry observes a psychedelic slide show at a strip bar (visible, presumably, only to him, though no presumption is safe in this movie) is both thoroughly mesmerizing and highly disturbing. That’s a hard combo to pull off, especially late in the movie when viewers have had ample opportunity to steel themselves against the madness.
At some point, though, it behooves even a mindfark movie to connect with its audience at a core emotional level, and that’s where Stay falls short. Forster understandably flexes his impressive editing muscles—crazy jump cuts, scene transitions triggered by obscure objects, vertiginous point-of-view angles—but it’s fair to question whether that dizzying display comes at the expense of meaning. What does it mean when a peripheral metallic balloon becomes the mirror for a lecture-hall scene? What does it mean when scenes play out in reverse sequence again and again? And for God’s sake, why does Foster’s standard professional outfit feature flood-zone pants and no socks?
Those are the questions that linger in the wake of Stay’s closing credits, and given the mind-bender of a final scene, it’s probably safe to assume that Forster and Benioff hoped to engender a more substantial existential hangover than that. Because the risk of catastrophic failure is high, it takes big cojones to make a mindfark movie. And there’s no question Forster and Benioff measure up favorably in the mindfark department to the likes of Christopher Nolan (director of Memento) and Charlie Kaufman (writer of Being John Malkovich and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). However, there’s a big difference between sending a mindfarked movie audience home shaking their heads in cold confusion and leaving them in heated wonder, and Stay ultimately fails to make that leap. Big balls and big brains will take you a long way in the genre, but as Nolan and Kaufman have demonstrated, it takes heart and guts to make a mindfark movie truly sublime.