2005 Movie Stay Discussed Unpacked Explained
The Movie Stay is a fantastic introspective and mercurial view into the life of a traumatized individual that will keep you guessing all day long. IMDB
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2005 Movie Stay Discussed Unpacked Explained

Recently, one of you pulled me aside and let me know just how disappointed they were with me. This happens regularly. So I generally pay it no mind. But this particular person was having nothing doing until I sat down and watched this really interesting movie entitled Stay. Only glitch all of my children are younger than this movie. Not to say it’s particularly old… BUT… it isn’t exactly cutting edge. Regardless, this movie is right up our alley. (Our alley being defined as movies that make us think. Correct? Correct.) And think it made me did. (eh?)

Quick Spoiler Free Stay Overview

Here is the Amazon overview, “This movie focuses on the attempts of a psychiatrist to prevent one of his patients from committing suicide while trying to maintain his own grip on reality.” Which, as far as overviews go is correct? But not much in the helpful department. Basically Ewan McGregor plays Sam, a psychiatrist filling in for a colleague that is out on medical leave. Sam is now picking up these patients and one in particular patient Harold announces that he is going to be committing suicide Saturday at Midnight… because it is his 21st birthday. Right? Well, obviously Sam has a problem on his hands. But as the movie begins to unfold we realize that it’s not only Harold who is having a problem identifying reality, but it is also Sam. Things begin to spiral quicker and quicker out of control for the poor guy as he struggles to save Harold’s life… and maybe his own? How about we do that trailer thing so you get what I’m talking about:

It’s a brooding introspection on purpose or reality of life. And a reaffirming view on why we really are all here. “There’s just too much beauty in the world…” But the reason this movie will play well here on this site is because I totally dig movies that are not what they seem. Literally from the first 30 seconds of this movie (which I knew nothing about when I started it) I was already realizing this thing wasn’t being honest with us from the outset. And dishonest it is! If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you find a copy. Here is where you can find it right this second. I’m sure this will modulate with time. But don’t say I didn’t try.

Soooo… if you are wanting to rent, it looks like Fandango is your best bet price wise. Or Amazon (maybe it’s free with Prime? Dunno.) Just find it. Hehehe. And what’s funny is… I’m sure all of you have seen it, and I’m the last hold out. Alright, enough small talk. Let’s dive in. Hey, if you haven’t seen the movie, this is your queue to disembark. But comeback and converse with us in the comments once you see it, ok?

Stay Movie Detailed Walkthrough

First, I have to comment that the movie was a box office disaster. Blood bath. But, it was directed by Marc Forster… which crafted such fine movies as World War Z, Finding Neverland, and my own personal favorite Stranger than Fiction. So although this particular flick flopped… (see what I did there? And you guys think I can’t write. That kind of play on words takes extraordinary talent. An active imagination. And just an IQ that is through the roof. Cough.) you can not just take my word for it, but the resume’ and pedigree he brings to the table

Right, so the movie begins with a bang straight out of the gates with a car crash. And then the next thing we see is Henry (played by Ryan Gosling of La La Land fame – come on, that movie is going to clean house at the Oscar’s this year. I know. Because I predicted it already. Deal with it.) sitting in the street… and then walking back into the city. Hrm. Right. Within the first minute I wrote this note down, and I quote, “Um. Is Gosling dead? What is going on?” And if we know one thing about this movie straight from the gun shot, nothing here is as it seems.

The movie kicks off by introducing us to all the players. There is Henry the suicidal artist that is obviously suffering some psychotic trauma after the accident. There is Sam, the stereotypical shrink that needs therapy just as much as his patients do whether he realizes it or not. There is Lila, the ex-patient of Sam’s who once tried valiantly to commit suicide by slashing her wrists. There is Beth, Henry’s normal psychiatrist, but she is AWOL on some sort of mental health holiday. And there are a few other ancillary characters, but mainly they are ill-defined and less stable to our main story line. We’ll hit them as they enter the story. But did I mention everything here is not as it seems yet? Right. Great. Thanks for confirming that for me.

The story mainly follows two different parallel arcs simultaneously. The first is Henry’s story, and we get closer and closer to Saturday at midnight the pace of the story begins speeding up rapidly. The second story that weaves it’s way in and out of the primary story line is that of Lana’s back story and Sam’s worry for her. Having attempted suicide in an extraordinarily dramatic way:

“You know, the day I did it, I took two razor blades to the bathtub. You know why? Because I knew that once I started to bleed, I’d get weak. And I didn’t wanna drop one blade and leave myself half done. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine hating your life so much that you’d wanna bring a backup razor?”

Yeah, she did it via two extremely deep vertical cuts through her wrists, Sam is beyond himself worrying about Lana. He’s considering proposing, even has a ring that he carries with him at all times (hrmmm), but he’s really too considered about her maybe committing suicide again. And to wit, she isn’t taking her pills anymore?!? WHAT?! Gah. He’s flipping out.

“STAY WITH ME HENRY”… did I mention that Henry is starting to hear voices now? Yeah.

Sam’s Quick Decline

Seeing as though this movie is about Henry, it’s fascinating just how much it is actually about Sam. And why exactly is that I ask you? Oh wait, we haven’t gotten to the ending yet. I’ll COVER IT IN THE ENDING PART THINGY! gah. You guys are soooo impatient. Just hold yer daggon horses. But it is curious that Henry seems to be the one that is holding it all together and Sam is the one that needs a counselor. He’s starting to see things loop. He’s vision is stuttering. He’s hearing things. Different events are happening again, and then again. There is a grand piano getting craned up a building, and a boy with a balloon is standing there both times… and he loses that balloon repeatedly as well.


(It might be wise to have a caps-lock intervention on my behalf right about now. Probably wouldn’t be terrible if I stopped capping my letters at the start of all my sentences. see? not terrible. it’d be worth it, if only i would just stop yelling!! hahaha.) But that all leaves us one specific question – is Henry dead already? Or maybe it’s Sam who’s dead, or dying? Or, could it be the stuttering and replay problems are because of some sort of disjointed con-flux problem like in the movie synchronicity? Could it be that Sam is stepping into and out of linear threads of time and he is seeing the disjointedness between the various thread universes? But we’ll conjecture at the end… I am only telling you what I was thinking as the movie was playing out. I knew it probably had to be one of two options. I just couldn’t tell which one it was before it ended.

The Art of the Movie Stay

How about an interlude for a think piece about my favorite quote of the movie: “Bad art is more tragically beautiful than good art because it documents human failure.” Damn that is good. Tragically beautiful because of what it documents. Wow. That is tragic really. But I will have to say that I was absolutely in love with Henry’s art that was absolutely everywhere in the movie. I even contacted the Director, Marc Forster, several different ways in an attempt to find out who the actual artist was for Henry’s paintings. Nothing yet. But don’t give up hope! Stranger things have happened.

The Dead Family of Henry Walking NY City

As the story unfolds (devolves?) we begin meeting Henry’s family. Both have been dead for a number of years, at least according to Henry. And yet, Sam is able to track down Henry’s mother, Mrs. Letham, and discuss Henry with her. And then blood starts flowing from her head. Something isn’t right at all. Oh, and also, she lives in a home that is empty. Oh, and the fridge is empty. What is going on here? And Henry’s father? Mr. Letham? He’s blind… and doesn’t recall Henry at all. Something is eternally broken and disjointed in the bowels of this story. And then Mr. Letham’s blindness is cured when Henry lays his hands on his eyes? And why does Athena not remember Henry? Or if she does, she only remembers him as the guy that never spoke to her in the restaurant. What broke that relationship between Henry and Athena? He had a ring (that he lost) that he was about to give her before the accident. They had something extraordinarily special, and then the accident happened.

Something grave is broken in this story. And that thing that is broken? Is Henry. Right? Henry is the thing that is thoroughly broken in this story. Scrawling “Please forgive me” over and over and over again on the walls of his bedroom? Henry is the one that has been shattered. And those fault lines run through absolutely everyone in this story. Through Sam, his parents, his girlfriend, even the random passersby aren’t right.
There was one interaction that really struck my fancy and caused me to pause and think:

Henry “What the fuck do you know? Everything you know is a lie…”

Sam “Alright, tell me what the truth is.”

Henry “Your troubles will cease and fortunes will smile upon you.”

Eh? Until a few minutes later, out of a fortune cookie, “Your troubles will cease and fortunes will smile upon you.” And it was about that time that I began assuming that we were dealing with a constant loop and that Sam was Henry and Henry was Sam. I was sure of it. If you have seen the movie Arq you will know what I mean. But I was convinced that we were dealing with some sort of groundhog’s day loop happening and that it would be Sam who needed to break the loop. And I was right and I was wrong simultaneously. Especially when Sam is speaking and he is saying, ‘if you are going to kill yourself, why didn’t you do it already?’ and Henry is saying the words with him simultaneously. Right? How does he know already what he’s going to say. Henry is trapped in a loop and Sam needs to help him break free. True? Cyclical staircases. Repeating images with pianos and balloons. Repeating people and repeating quotes. Henry finds himself in the same rooms, the same experiences over and over and over again. He’s glitching. He’s forgetting. He’s not remembering what is real or what is fake. The ripping in Henry’s mind is starting to happen Sam’s as well.

And when Sam finally catches up with Henry towards the end… they have an important exchange I don’t want to miss:
Sam – “You said, I didn’t know what was real anymore, and I said I did, but I was wrong.”
Henry – “You are, you’re real. You are trying to save me, but I just gotta wake up.
Sam – “You are awake.”
Henry – “Look around you, if this is a dream then the whole world is inside it.”
Sam – “Hurts too much, wish you didn’t have to see this.”

Which, I have to say, if read literally, is the single truest bit of dialogue in the entirety of the movie.

The Ending of Stay

When we snap to the bridge towards the end, and the night of the accident, things begin to finally come clear. It is Sam and Lana who are first on the scene of the accident. The boy with the balloon and his mom are there. Sam checks the others in the car and sees that they are dead. They are holding Henry. They are talking into his ear, “Is your name Henry? Stay with me Henry. Stay with the sound of my voice.”

The movie is occurring inside the mind of Henry alone. The accident has occurred. His family and his to-be fiance, they are all dead. Henry is struggling with the reality of the accident he has just caused. “Please Forgive Me.” And all of the movie hangs in the balance of one small item that Henry is looking for. The engagement ring that he has lost and that Sam has been carrying around the entire movie. So the brokenness we were seeing? Was the shattered mind we were seeing the movie through. The fault lines and the chaos of the movie was caused by the man that is dying.

The Meaning of Stay and Theories – a literal reading

Normally I give you 3 or 4 theories about the ways in which we can interpret this movie. But with this one, there really is mainly just one. There could be a couple different ways in which we can interpret the ending. So I’ll give you a couple on the reasons and the purposes for the ending, or even the meaning. And the first one, is a literal reading. Which just means, that the movie happens inside of Henry’s mind as he’s dying. He’s struggling to hold it all together and as he is dying he’s rationalizing this chaos that has struck him out of the blue. Simple enough. Come on people. There is more here, dig deeper!!

The Meaning of Stay – a theological reading

In discussing this movie with a few of you I related my perspective that it is basically a modern day retelling of the movie Jacob’s Ladder. Have you guys seen that movie? Well, if you haven’t I’m about to spoil it for you. The entire movie is a guy dying in Vietnam. And all throughout the movie it is a war, and a battleground, for the soul of Jacob. There are demons circulating throughout that movie. There are angels contending for his soul. And the entirety of the movie is all about this dying (actually dead) man stripping away the regrets and terrors of his life. Could it be that a deeper view of Stay falls in line with this type of reading? Could it be that similarly, Henry is fighting and warring with the memories of his life and the failed potential that he is missing? Is it that angels and demons are fighting for Henry’s soul and they are being played out in the form of Henry’s newfound friends he has just met at the crash site?

The Meaning of Stay – A Freudian Psychological View

Halfway through the movie, Freud’s burning boy story is discussed. If that didn’t stand out to you as an enormous, gargantuan Godzilla of a red flag, then I apologize… but the hints? They don’t come louder than that. The story is that a father gets a visit in a dream from his son in the night, and the boy says to his father, “Don’t you see that I’m burning?” But what did Freud actually say was the deeper meaning of this dream and this interaction between this father and the dream of his son warning him and the reality of his dead child in the other room? This is Freud’s explanation:

“If we eliminate the wish-fulfilment, we shall see that only one feature is left to distinguish the two forms of psychical event. The dream-thought would have run: ‘I see a glare coming from the room where the dead body is lying. Perhaps a candle has fallen over and my child may be burning.’ The dream repeated these reflections unaltered, but it represented them in a situation which was actually present and which could be perceived through the senses like a waking experience. Here we have the most general and the most striking psychological characteristic of the process of dreaming: a thought, and as a rule a thought of something that is wished, is objectified in the dream, is represented as a scene, or, as it seems to us, is experienced… Thus dreams make use of the present tense in the same manner and by the same right as day-dreams. The present tense is the one in which wishes are represented as fulfilled”

This? (In this theory’s opinion anyway) is exactly what happened to Henry in the movie. Literally. Wait [email protected]!? I hear 90% of you saying. Freud wasn’t even speaking in English man! Ok. I’ll break it down for you slowly.

The father, noticing a light, a glare, from the other room while sleeping was aware in his deepest psyche that something terrible was happening. The father in a split second wished his son dead. And he…? Paused. Long enough for his psychic (meaning 2 of the definition of Psychic, not 1, “relating to the soul or mind”. This theory is weird, but not THAT weird.) son to arrive and tell him he was burning. And in that moment, the son does burn… and dies.

Henry similarly is psychically dreaming as he dies. The question here is simple, does he awake and live. Or does he sleep and die? Does he respond to the information given and react? ‘There’s too much beauty in the world Henry… too much god damned beauty.’ Or does he sink in the guilt and the grief of the moral crime he sees that he has committed against his family, his girlfriend, against the universe. ‘Please forgive me. Please forgive me. Please forgive me.’ And this is the balance that is being fought over throughout the length of the movie.

Stay Movie Final Thoughts

I can probably think of 2 more theories without even breaking a sweat this movie is so deep. It has layers built on layers of layers of intent and portent. It is a well crafted maze of ideas and thoughts all hinged on our poor star-crossed Henry. I cannot stand Freud personally. Everything is abhorrent and sexualized when in fact his pool of data was myopically small. And yet, that is immaterial. The movie has given us a key to understanding the inner workings here, and so we must use it to dive to a deeper understanding of this work of art before us.

I was discussing a Banksy painting with my son the other day and he and I were arguing about the meaning. We knew it wasn’t literal. We knew it wasn’t supposed to be a cop that had a balloon dog as his assistant. We knew it was alluding to something more important. And so me and my 10 year old thrashed about, disagreeing and agreeing and ultimately saying we don’t know completely what Banksy’s intent was. (“Police only have power that is given them by the people”, “It is making fun of cops and how they work and what they do”, etc.) But we did know that it was say something important that we could just read at face value. And I concluded that conversation with him by saying, Ashton? It’s the discussion that is important. It is the dialogue that Banksy is creating by releasing this painting that was his intent.  To that end, what is your take on the movie Stay? Love to hear your thoughts.

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2 Responses

  1. Sally Burke

    Hi Taylor…
    Wow! I so enjoy all of your film analyses, but I was especially happy to read that one of your fine readers (clearly a person of refined, intellectual sensibilities) encouraged you to watch and review Stay, definitely among my favorite films. As usual, you make profound and insightful observations, and I continue to be amazed with your vast background knowledge and your depth of understanding. Additionally, I am grateful for your positive review on this movie in particular as I’ve always felt a sense of frustration that it was so hideously panned, for I consider it to be simply a work of art- clever, beautiful, and extremely well constructed.
    But I have a question: how many times did you watch this film? The reason I ask (which directly relates to why I think it was poorly rated) is a bit difficult to explain, so “stay” with me. (No pun intended… well, sort of intended.)
    Basically, I believe there are two story lines, and before I reveal them, let me say that In the following explanation I will politely disagree with your two parallel “story arcs”, specifically your claim that second story arc is of Lana (I’m pretty sure you meant Lila) and Sam’s back story. To me, the two story lines are:
    1. what is real – the car crash and the moments directly following it
    2. what is not real – EVERYTHING ELSE
    And what makes this movie so interesting is that what is real isn’t exposed until the very end when the crash is shown from beginning to end, without interruption.
    With the exception of tiny details and subtle bits of action from the real storyline that bleed into Henry’s damaged brain, all of the other action in the film is not real, bur representation of poor Henry’s desperate and disintegrating narrative, almost like a dream or hallucination, as he tries to make sense of not only the cause of the accident, but his entire life in those fleeting moments before he dies. And the small details that find their way into his crumbling mind are imperceptible until the viewer is fully informed at the end, learning what is real. And that, Taylor Holmes, is why at least two viewings are necessary to really “get” this hidden gem of a movie, which enable the viewer to tie up loose ends and fully understand how the two stories of real and not real intersect. And truly, the subsequent viewings are when the movie just gets better and better, revealing how very clever the seemingly minor bits of action that occurred in the few minutes between the crash and Henry’s death are integrated into his thought process. Examples of this are multi-sensorial: the sounds of the baby crying and the ring clanging across the pavement or how the buildings resemble the bridge on which the accident occurred etc…. And, aside from the obvious players of Sam and Lila, essentially every onlooker present at the car crash site is thoughtfully intertwined in Henry’s story, manifestations of the demons he faces as he reconciles his predicament, i.e. the kid with the balloon who says “Mommy, is that man going to die?”, Leon, Sam’s blind friend symbolizing Henry’s father, how Lila’s face morphs into Athena’s, etc. An especially good example of this is depicted by the woman at the crash site who is the first onlooker to approach Henry’s dying body, only to nervously recoil, defensively claiming, “I was the first one here… I didn’t move him… I can’t watch anymore.” Aware yet probably confused and hurt by her disdainful reaction, Henry tries to make sense of his feelings of abandonment by assigning her a new role in his story – as Beth, his regular psychiatrist who is on sick leave at his most critical hour of need, only to be replaced by the second real person to approach him on the pavement, represented in his mind by Sam, the not real psychiatrist filling in his usual doctor who ultimately shows him more kindness and understanding as he lay dying. Another subtle but wonderful detail included by the filmmakers was to have not real Sam wearing trousers that are noticeably and curiously short. That’s because from Henry’s perspective on the ground, as Ewan McGregor’s real character crouched before him, his pants would be hiked up appearing to be cropped. Another brilliant intersection of the two story lines is when Henry attends a not real rehearsal of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Henry’s last name is Letham which is an anagram of Hamlet, but more symbolic is that the crux of Hamlet is based on the line “to be or not to be” as Hamlet considers suicide, just as Henry wants die to ease the crushing guilt he feels for causing the accident which kills his family and girlfriend. These are just a few of the many, many ways in which the real and not real worlds collide around Henry as he drifts toward death.
    At the end of your review, you wonder if Henry lives or dies, but, unlike many aspects of the film, I don’t think this is up for debate or personal interpretation. I’m certain he dies, evidenced by the fact that he is wrapped in a body bag as his body is loaded into the ambulance. Another point I’d like to address is when you compare Stay to Jacob’s Ladder. Absolutely, they have very similar plots in that the bulk of the action really lies in the moments between life and death, but to me, that is where the similarities end, as their structures are entirely different. With Stay, we as viewers know something isn’t right and so we look for clues (of which there are many) trying desperately to understand what the hell is going on. But with JL, the viewer (at least this viewer) is just going along for the ride, immersed in the story of his life after Vietnam Nam, never even questioning or suspicious that it isn’t reality. So at the end of JL, it’s a total shocker to discover none of it was real, like “What? None of that even happened?” But with Stay, it’s actually satisfying, not shocking, to discover none of it was real, more like “Ah ha! Now it all makes sense.” The riddle is solved!
    In closing, thank you again. I thoroughly enjoyed and learned fromyour breakdown and feel oddly vindicated your review which is SO right on. I will be certain to share it with a few close minded “Stay” naysayers I know.

  2. Todd

    Hi Sally, I wanted to thank you for pointing out that most of the people in the crowd were filed into a) mental health professionals (3?), b) psych students, c) artists/art teachers.

    I hadn’t noticed those characterization s until you pointed out the first on scene were cast as shrinks.

    There were a few things I wanted to add, such as accessing a dream symbols book helps decode some of the scenes (twins, stairs, etc) as well as listening to the art teachers instructions how to read the movi…er I mean paintings.

    Also artistically done is the tvs in the background are always flashing his life before his eyes (as does your TV at the end).

    And finally I wanted to vigorously disagree with both you and Taylor about everything happening in the dream being unreal. After all the Buddhists are right as Henrys father says.

    The dream is real in a few senses. I’m sure you picked up on it being a real path to forgiving himself so he can die peacefully and many of the dialog were real voices in a more literal sense (either in present tense or the past).

    There are parts of the dream that were real on a spiritual level. As Henry is dying the Veil of Maya (Buddhism) becomes hazy and there are several parts where Sam says that even if the world is a lie there are some things he knows are True. For example he says he knows that he loves Lila even if nothing else was true. At the end of the film when he thanks Lila he has some insight from his connection to Henry in his dying moments that lead him to ask her out.

    Additional indications that the Veil of Maya is being stripped away (besides the many visual effects) characters swap places, get confused for each other


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