Actor Martin Donovan, a familiar face in American independent film since starring in Hal Hartley films in the early 1990s, makes his writing and directorial debut with Collaborator. While it can be described as a suspense film, Donovan creates a world also paced with a focus on character, illuminated by the tense situation built up by the plot.
Donovan plays Robert Longfellow, a famous playwright whose most recent work has been panned and promptly closed. To lick his wounds, he heads back to Los Angeles to spend some time with his mother. He also gets in touch with a former lover, Emma Stiles (Olivia Williams), who gained fame starring in his plays and has since become a prominent Hollywood actress. This relationship is complicated in many ways, not least because Robert has a wife and two children back east.
This is all background setup for a story centered on Robert’s encounter with his neighbor, Gus Williams (a really excellent David Morse), who is a bit older than Robert and has continued to live at home with his mother. His only profession seems to be over-aged juvenile delinquent; he has been in and out of jail all his life. When an overly jovial Gus asks Robert to have a beer with him, Robert, at first, gets out of what he thinks will be a socially uncomfortable encounter. After Gus corners Robert as he’s leaving one night to meet up with Emma, he reluctantly agrees. As soon as they relax, police swarm into the neighborhood, and Robert is held hostage in his childhood home at gunpoint by a drunk and irrational Gus.
Collaborator starts off a bit slow, establishing Robert’s disappointments professionally and personally. The pieces start to come together, though, as Gus enters the picture. Morse commits to the character, making him simultaneously off-putting and likable. The relationship between Gus and Robert becomes vivid once they are trapped in the house and as Donovan adds tidbits about their childhood lives into the script. These are two were never really friends. Though they grew up in the same neighborhood, they have completely different perspectives on life. But when they laugh over a story about an old neighbor, you immediately get the sense of community within a circumstance wrought with danger.
This is not to overshadow the tension that Donovan builds. With moments of camaraderie come moments of real pressure as the truth about Gus’s recent criminal activity and the effects of Robert’s affair come to light. This is played out through the thoughtful script, expressing themes concerning fame, childhood, and even politics. Also notable are the performances of Katherine Helmond and Eileen Ryan as the mothers of Robert and Gus, respectively. While secondary characters, both bring humor to the film and demonstrate Donovan’s ability to create a complex world with simple, well-written dialog.
The film is smart in its depiction of character, but leaves a little wanting in terms of visuals. It’s clear that Donovan wanted to concentrate almost solely on character, and he blatantly sets up Gus and Robert’s confrontation very minimally and stage-bound at times. However, there were a few interesting wide, sweeping shots of Los Angeles, cut into the scenes of rising tension, perhaps noting the curious outside world effecting the situation between Robert and Gus. It made me wish for more daring camerawork; something to look forward to as Donovan begins his directing career.