Sunday, August 31, 2008

“Stay,” a psychological mystery-allegory originally released in October 2005, is framed by episodes that depict an eerie car accident on the Brooklyn Bridge. Precipitated by a blown tire, the calamity appears to leave at least one survivor, who wanders away from a fiery crash scene, but the filmmakers delay a full accounting of the aftermath and consequences of the accident until the denouement.

What we observe between prologue and epilogue is a phantasmagoric blend of character study and rescue attempt that pits the suicidal despair of a young man called Henry Letham, played by Ryan Gosling, against the sincerity of a psychiatrist, Ewan McGregor as Sam Foster, who seems to have inherited a dire case on short notice and hastens to familiarize himself with the patient. Hostile and barely communicative, Letham is eventually revealed to be armed and dangerous.

From the outset, he doesn’t mind admitting that he’s a threat to himself: Letham vows to commit suicide within 72 hours. This threat confronts his would-be rescuer with a deadline whose duration proves dynamically elastic and accelerated as David Benioff, the ingenious screenwriter, and Marc Forster, the adroit director, manipulate cinematic time, suspense and allusion in concert with their resourceful collaborators.

Certain cast members, notably Mr. McGregor and Naomi Watts as Foster’s girlfriend, Lila, an art teacher who takes a sympathetic and curiously knowing interest in the Letham case, play in a reassuring naturalistic style. However, most of the scenes unfold in settings or fragments intended to be disorienting and perplexing.

The Brooklyn Bridge is a haunted and recurrent backdrop. Conversations in one location may shift to another with the opening of a door or the turn of a corner. Characters may suddenly echo each other’s lines or even speak them in unison. Scene fragments may repeat themselves. Foreshadowing remarks obviously do, especially “Stay with me, Henry” and “Forgive me” and “He’s not going to make it.”

Encounters in stairwells tend to facilitate disappearances, as the stairs become the mazes that often thwart searches or pursuits in dream states.

Sooner or later you’re persuaded that the development stage of the movie is meant to resemble a prolonged dream state, reviving a cinematic tradition that dates back most famously to “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the German puzzler of 1920 that purported to unfold in the imagination of a madman, illustrated by abstract set design and wall painting.

Although “Stay” exploits several New York City locations with streamlined cleverness and eloquence and even suggests that Henry Letham is an aspiring painter, the film doesn’t hinge on insanity. It’s content to sketch the contours of a gravely wounded and despairing mentality - and then respond to the distress of this lost soul with an extraordinary quality of gentleness and pity. That response lifts the final, mystery-resolving images to a level of pathos that is likely to prove overwhelming and unforgetable to spectators willing to trust the filmmakers.

I think the trust is amply repaid, but the movie didn’t encounter a responsive mass public. My poor excuse for overlooking it when “Stay” was new: the approach of my own retirement as a full-time movie critic. Nevertheless, I should have been more alert to its existence and possibilities, since I had interviewed Marc Forster when he was promoting “Finding Neverland.” He talked a bit about his next project, which became “Stay,” and it sounded intriguing as a conversation piece.

I didn’t catch up with the film until last year, on cable television, when it took me by surprise. Twice in a manner of speaking, since I came in late the first time while channel surfing and saw only the last half of the movie. Happily, its compelling nature is also there from the outset.

The lackluster box-office might be traced to the absence of either exaggerated horror or unreasonable reassurance. “Stay” gravitates toward the ghost story and horror melodrama in some respects but remains essentially discreet and cerebral while reflecting on themes of fatality and remorse. I suspect it may be easier to admire if you’ve had some experience of either crash sites or brink-of-death showdowns, but sheer apprehension about those things should also suffice.

In retrospect, it might also be argued that “Stay” was never a title calculated to stick in the mind as indelibly as, oh, “Psycho” or “Titanic” or “Scream.” That fleeting inconvenience should not obscure the fact that “Stay” deserves to be remembered as a simultaneously heartfelt and stylish classic of the new century.

TITLE: “Stay”

RATING: R (Sustained ominous atmosphere, occasional profanity and some graphic violence)

CREDITS: Directed by Marc Forster. Written by David Benioff. Cinematography by Roberto Schaefer. Production design by Kevin Thompson. Editing by Matt Chesse. Visual effects consultant: Keith Tod Haug. Music by Asche & Spencer

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes

DVD EDITION: 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment


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