"Stay" wants to terrify you, it wants to thrill you and it wants to make your jaw drop so far down that it falls victim to the stickiness of the movie-theater floor. One thing it does not need to do, however, is surprise you.
"I think it's important that people know that this movie isn't set in reality," declared the film's brazen director, 36-year-old Marc Forster, genre-hopping once again to this supernatural thriller after the successes of "Monster's Ball" and last year's "Finding Neverland."
To movie audiences accustomed to guarding "The Sixth Sense" twist, "The Crying Game" reveal and the identity of "The Usual Suspects" villain as if they were matters of homeland security, Forster's unusual declaration comes as a breath of fresh air.
"I don't want to trick them or anything," Forster continued. "That's what the interesting part of the film is, that people know going in that it's not set in reality."
Remaining faithful to the director, then, let's lay it all on the line: "Stay" begins when Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling) is driving his car across the Brooklyn Bridge with family members occupying the seats around him. After, arguably, the most horrific automobile crash you'll ever see in a movie, Henry lies in the middle of the wreckage, somewhere between consciousness and death, peripherally aware that his passengers are dead. The majority of the film exists between heaven and hell, as Henry tenuously clings to life while experiencing a demented tale involving his own suicide, psychiatrist Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor) — who may or may not actually be Henry as well — and his sexy but equally suicidal wife, Lila (Naomi Watts).
Throw in random sets of twins wandering the streets, a collection of piano movers who never seem to get anywhere, a blind man who can see and a dead woman who thinks Sam is her son, and you begin to understand why Forster feels like he can give all his secrets away, yet still keep the audience in the dark.
"I like to see her as ... um ... you know ... the bright light, the angel, the ... the ... um ...," Watts struggled, attempting to explain her character, one of many that simply must be watched to be understood. "That's the way Marc talked about her when he was discussing the script with me."
"That's what I like about the movie," Gosling insisted. "There's no trick ending, there's no rabbit coming out of a hat, and the filmmaker's not trying to distract you from the truth [only to] reveal it to you. It's a very honest movie, where he lays it all on the table in the beginning and says, 'This has nothing to do with reality, and this is a trip, and we're all going to take it together.' "
Once the rules of our human existence are cast aside in the film's opening minutes, Forster argues, he is free to concentrate on dazzling the audience with a potent, unrestrained combination of camerawork and atmosphere. "One has a lot of freedom to create, but at the same time, you're also walking on thin ice because you never know when you're gonna drop it," he remembered. "You're directing instinctually."
"The main problem with movies is you're always like, 'But how was he ...? But he was over at ... this couldn't have happened, if this happened,' " Gosling said of the freedom of working without logic. "You're trying to fulfill a gazillion holes. This alleviated all of it. It's an experience. It's like going to see a band play, or looking at a painting. It's your own interpretation of the experience."
"And I like that, because it raises questions," Watts agreed. "To me, [the title means] live and enjoy this life, it's a valuable gift, and yes, it's going to have good parts and bad parts and we must know and trust that it's not all going to be one way. It's going to change, and you're not alone."
"It was a really fun way to work; you had to just let everything go," Gosling marveled, perhaps realizing that he may never again find such an opportunity. "It's like he's a painter, and you're paint. It's your job to be the color that you are, and that's it, and he's going to place you wherever you need to be. You don't have to worry about a lot of things you'd worry about on a normal film."
"For instance," Forster said of one of the film's dozens of "what's up with that?" recurring themes, which has McGregor clad in ill-fitting pants for nearly every scene. "When [McGregor] kneels down to talk to Ryan [at the accident], Ryan's perception is that the pants are up, so they're shorter. That's why Ewan's wearing shorter pants. And that's why visual clues have a meaning throughout the film."
"Marc would ask us to say each other's lines and switch it up in takes," Gosling said, remembering one of his favorite freedoms invoked by the irreverent film. "Like, I would play [McGregor's] character, and he would play mine, for different takes. We really let go of 'This is your character, and this is my character, and we're going to come together in this scene.' It was a really free environment to experiment."
Ultimately, "Stay" is a collective dream, one shared between the audience, the actors and Forster. And like any dream, only certain parts of it are meant to be understood. Blind men can see, dead people can walk and a purple elephant could fall out of the sky, and it would all be perfectly plausible.
"Right," agreed Gosling, offering up a crooked smile before looking over at his director. "Hey, why didn't we have an elephant fall out of the sky?"
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