A good surprise-twist ending has lately become the Holy Grail of movie thrillers. Trouble is, the harder you try to come up with one, the less likely it becomes that you nail the important things. So you usually end up serving your audience cheap wine from a paper cup.
In Stay, novelist-cum-screenwriter David Benioff -- Spike Lee filmed his book 25th Hour very well -- concocts a tale of what appears to be the psychological mixed with the supernatural. He satisfies for a while, and then he turns his screw, at which point he chooses one of two increasingly popular twist endings (the Donnie Darko twist) after leading us to believe he'd chosen the other one (the Fight Club twist).
Stay revolves around Sam (Ewan McGregor), a Manhattan psychiatrist involved with Lila (Naomi Watts), a former patient who once attempted suicide. Sam is trying to prevent the suicide of Henry (Ryan Gosling), an art student formerly treated by a colleague (Janeane Garofalo) who's had a nervous breakdown. Henry's case absorbs Sam as soon as he inherits it, especially when the young man declares that in three days -- at midnight on Saturday -- he will kill himself.
Unraveling Henry turns into a dizzying puzzle. Henry predicts hail, correctly, on a sunny day. He says his parents, who lived in New Jersey, are dead, and the local sheriff concurs -- right after Sam has a talk with Henry's mother. And so on, until Benioff and director Marc Forster (Monster's Ball) quit playing their mind games and show us what's happening.
I suppose you could generously argue that Stay takes on weighty themes like guilt, recovery, responsibility and, with its pale cast of suicide, the value of sticking around in a dismal post-9/11 world. (25th Hour included a melancholy dialogue that Lee filmed in a high-rise overlooking Ground Zero). Forster achieves his sensations with skewed camera angles, fish-eye closeups, visual effects and some quick cutting. The movie opens on the Brooklyn Bridge at high speed with an electrifying visualization of a blown tire and a fiery crash, and it closes there, too, so it can answer its tantalizing narrative questions.
In between, Forster manages a few shivers and some somber conversations between Sam and Henry, and also between Sam and Lila, who's curious about Henry's case because of her own past. This is fertile material for a realistic (if modest) drama, except for the exigencies of the movie's thriller plot. We're left with a serviceable entertainment, nicely acted by McGregor -- whose American accent, masking his Scottish burr, gives his character a useful flatness -- and by Gosling, who pours himself into his role of a tortured young man who's running out of time to assuage what may be his unfounded guilt.