by Mark Gabrish Conlan • © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
The film at the San Diego Public Library June 9 was Stay, which I especially wanted to see because two of my favorite people in contemporary film were involved in it: Ryan Gosling played a leading role and Marc Forster was the director. Ralph DeLauro invoked The Twilight Zone as a comparison point in his introduction and certainly the parallels were there. The movie begins with a tire-less auto wheel working itself free from a burning car — at first I thought this was the logo for one of the multitude of production companies seemingly involved in producing any film that gets made today — and the auto belongs to Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling), a suicidal, schizophrenic art student who burned it on purpose (at least we think that’s what happened — later we get other clues). He’s been seeing a female psychiatrist who has a nervous breakdown of her own (caused, it’s hinted later — a lot of dramatic issues in David Benioff’s script are merely hinted at instead of being spelled out for us — by Henry’s intractability as a patient), and one day he shows up for his appointment and she’s not there.
Instead there’s a “substitute shrink,” Dr. Sam Foster (Ewan MacGregor, top-billed), whose commonality with Henry has already been established visually by a match cut in which Gosling’s face so perfectly turns into MacGregor’s I was beginning to wonder either if the two were going to turn out to be the same person or one was going to be the delusion of the other à la The Sixth Sense. Dr. Foster’s real point of identification with his new patient is that his own live-in girlfriend, Lila Culpepper (Naomi Watts), is an artist who attempted suicide by slashing her arms (down the long way rather than the far less dangerous across the wrists). Henry is obsessed with a deceased artist who on his 21st birthday burned all his paintings and committed suicide as his ultimate artistic statement. He’s also obsessed with a lot of things — as are the writer and director who created him: we get a lot of shots of spiral staircases (a favorite movie image since the film of that title and, even more so, Hitchcock’s Vertigo — and it’s a testament to Forster’s and Benioff’s ability to create a mood that the visual quotes from Vertigo add to the mood instead of distracting us by seeming to say, “See how clever we are?”).
There are a lot of recurring images — including one of an engagement ring — and characters who may or may not be alive, including Dr. Foster’s mentor, Dr. Leon Patterson (Bob Hoskins), a blind man (until he mysteriously recovers his sight later in the film) with whom Dr. Foster plays chess, calling out his moves so Patterson can “see” them (an evocation of the chess game with Death in The Seventh Seal?), and whom Henry is convinced is his father even though he’s earlier told Dr. Foster (and us) that both his parents are dead. (Later we meet someone who may or may not be his mother as well.)
I usually can’t stand movies like this that are so disconnected from reality that anything can happen in their plots — as Dwight Macdonald wrote of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (a movie that really isn’t that disconnected at all, especially by comparison with what’s been made since!), “If all the cards are wild, you can’t play poker.” And you can’t play with audience expectations unless you first set up some to begin with. Nonetheless, though it didn’t strike me as in the same league as Finding Neverland or Stranger Than Fiction (which might almost be read as a parody of Stay), this is a remarkable film, visually stunning and powered by Gosling’s marvelously enigmatic performance — even though, as my partner Charles said when it was over (a thought that had occurred to me as well), one wonders if Gosling always has to play picturesquely doomed psychotics or people on the edge. Isn’t someone, someday going to cast him as a nice, ordinary, normal human being?