Pop-existentialist filmmaking is a tangled business. While Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind pulled it off through humour and carefully woven strands of believability, Vanilla Sky and the Matrix sequels proved that if you stray even slightly from the mark you can confuse more than entertain.
Career-wise, up to this movie it had been so far, so good for Stay director Marc Forster (Monster’s Ball, Finding Neverland). But this jumbled stew of identity, guilt, death and love is his first major slip-up. The story’s recurring motif – that the whole world is an illusion – is used to disorientate and perplex, when it should really have been used to intrigue and provoke.
Still, there’s some merit here. The action plays out in a gorgeously shot New York City, and almost every frame features visual or aural clues about what the hell is actually going on – the voices in Letham’s head being the most useful. McGregor, too, does well with what he’s left with. His often uneven American accent is much more understated – and considerably less distracting – than it was in The Island or Big Fish and his portrayal of a man whose very identity is in doubt is sharp and convincing. Naomi Watts, who plays Foster’s girlfriend Lila, is an excellent, soulful foil for his downward spiral. And all the while Gosling is suitably brooding as the suicidal Letham.
But it’s a story largely taking place in an abstract dream-land, and while dreams can be revealing when it comes to subconscious fears and hopes, they just don’t automatically lend themselves to cohesive plots. So while there’s a definite concept behind the visual and emotional confusion of Stay, it’s one that you’re unlikely to unravel until much later, and even then not all of the pieces will fit into place. A brain-taxing, but ultimately frustrating experience.