On the Brooklyn Bridge at midnight, flames leap from the windows of a mangled car; all other traffic is at a standstill. A few paces away from the burning wreckage sits a young man (Ryan Gosling), cross-legged, staring at the ground ahead of him with a stoic look on his face. As the sound of police sirens grows faintly in the distance, the man stands up and slowly, calmly, he begins walking away from the car. Black smoke continues to fill the sky.
We abruptly transition to Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor), a practicing psychiatrist. On his way to work, we are also introduced to Sam’s current girlfriend Lila (Naomi Watts), and the two discuss Sam’s newest patient named Henry Letham. Sam describes Henry as a college student who is suffering from guilt, paranoia, and depression.
Sam meets with Henry in his office, and we see that this is the same young man from the beginning of the film. During their first meeting, Henry reveals to Sam that he hears voices in his head, and, before leaving, looks out the window and comments, “I’m gonna go home before this hail starts.” Later, it does in fact hail, much to the intrigue of Sam.
During their next meeting is when things get a bit dicey. Henry informs Sam of his plans to kill himself, as well as the specific time he will do so. Things are further complicated when Henry disappears soon after his announcement. Sam, determined to help Henry, sets out to find him, but quickly learns that he may already be more involved than he initially thought.
A plot like this sounds simple enough, but Stay proves to be anything but, presenting itself instead as an intensely and ambiguously beneath-the-surface film. It provides an in-depth look at the human ability to process and come to terms with traumas, both past and present. Instead of telling us this, the film instead shows us the pure complexity and profundity in how people subconsciously recognize and deal with emotions, even if (and especially if) they don’t fully understand them.
It’s difficult to write about any of the more technical aspects (or even the performances) without spoilers. Instead of getting into specifics, I’ll instead note that everything present in Stay is VERY articulate, and the crew has paid a remarkable amount of attention to detail. Creative choices in set design, editing, and even costumes may all come across as strange, but are completely justified. As far as the performances, they’re not necessarily the kinds to win awards, but they serve the narrative immaculately.
The pure ambiguity eventually builds towards a narratively and emotionally powerful finale. Any triumphant feeling I had of FINALLY placing those last few pieces of the puzzle was quickly dwindled by the poignancy of the image staring back at me; it brought a tear to my eye. It’s hard to say much of anything without spoiling it, but let’s just say that if you understand what is happening, it’ll hit you like a ton of bricks.
This is a film I wish more people knew about. It’s an intimate and visceral look at human emotion, grief, and guilt. I highly recommend it if you enjoy films rooted in under-the-surface themes and tendencies, or are simply looking to expand your horizons into that territory.
Overall rating: 9/10