Despite the traditional accusation thrown at actors who attempt to direct, it would’ve been difficult for Martin Donovan to make something that would be described as a vanity project. As an actor who usually embodies an open wound – well, not entirely open as one needs to get past his cool exterior, which once crumbled just a little bit in performances such as his ailing Ralph Touchette in Jane Campion’s “Portrait of a Lady” or widowed Bill Truitt in Don Roos’ “The Opposite of Sex” yields uncommon depth and decency — Donovan usually wrestles with the tension of the fiction he’s performing and the reality he brings out of it. (Particularly as he’s dipped in and out of TV series such as “Weeds” in recent years.)
So it makes sense that his directorial debut “Collaborator” is a film about the artistic process under the guise of a hostage crisis, a thriller that makes the act of improvising seem dangerous. Donovan writes himself a meaty role as Robert Longfellow, a playwright who leaves his family in New York for his mother’s house in the Southern California suburbs, nursing his feelings after a wave of bad reviews for his latest production, another disappointment after once being hailed as a once-in-a-generation talent.
In Reseda, Robert looks for a bit of inspiration and a paying Hollywood gig while tending to his mother (Katherine Helmond), but he soon finds himself pestered by Gus (David Morse), the wayward son of his mom’s neighbor who does little more than drink beer after prison stretches have made him useless to society. The two men seem to have that in common, but little else, so when Gus knocks on Robert’s door one night with a six-pack in one hand and a gun hidden in another, it creates a tete-a-tete soaked in personal resentment towards each other and their wildly differing worldviews, one that can only seemingly be resolved when Robert brings up his relationship to an actress Gus admires (Olivia Williams) and the two start to communicate through acting exercises that allow Gus to inhabit a different skin.
While the world outside the house Robert and Gus hole up in never feels fully credible – the news coverage the two check in on from time to time on television performed by real L.A. news anchors nakedly serves as exposition — it hardly matters when the acting is as strong as it is in “Collaborator.” For those who remember the last time Morse was in a similar situation in 1995’s “The Negotiator,” it’s a bit of a kick to see the typically stoic actor a shambling mess who’s no match for Donovan’s Robert intellectually but counters with a hard-won humanity that Robert seems to have detached from. The same holds true for the all-too-brief appearances of Helmond, Eileen Ryan as Gus’ mom and Williams, whose characters can only watch in disbelief from afar.
Technically, the filmmakers keep their distance as well, with nicely twinging score from Manels Favre and cinematography by Julie Kirkwood that feels weighty in its use of negative space, all of which complements Donovan’s subversive take on one of the movies’ most reliable premises for suspense. Although the film has more than its share of fun with the culture clash between Robert and Gus, it also gives dignity to both of them, weaponizing their ideas and rendering the outcome far less interesting than the path to getting there.
Though a producer of schlocky horror films tells Robert at one point, “There’s no passion in this script,” the same can’t be said for “Collaborator” and unlike his onscreen counterpart, Donovan shouldn’t be discouraged from pursuing a career behind the camera further.