The adage is, “if you want something done right, do it yourself”, and clearly Martin Donovan took that to heart — writing, directing, and starring in Collaborator, a film that serves as his writing and directorial debut.
In the film, which co-stars David Morse in a terrific turn as Donovan’s un-balanced neighbor and Olivia Williams as an old flame, Donovan plays Robert Longfellow, a successful and controversial playwright who has traveled home to California to check on his mother (played by the wonderful Katherine Helmond). While there, Longfellow visits Williams, playing actress Emma Stiles, and starts down an adulterous path with her while also agreeing to write a script for her.
Morse, as Gus, observes the return of the prodigal son and tries to cozy up to the famous writer, much to Longfellow’s chagrin. This is the basic premise of the first act, the calm before the storm.
See, Gus is criminally inclined, and soon a simple beer with an old neighbor turns into a hostage stand-off with Gus holding a gun to Robert’s head. What follows is an odd, sometimes frightening, often congenial kidnapping with the two trading stories and chatting up Longfellow’s famous ex while his wife, played with little effect by former Smashing Pumpkins bassist Melissa Auf der Maur, watches the stand-off unfold from across the country.
As I said before, Donovan wore three hats for this picture, yet in reflection I can only give two high marks. Firstly, Donovan is one of those “that guy” faces, popping up in this project and that project. Fantastic in the first act of Insomnia, the first and second season of Weeds, in The Opposite of Sex, and a ton of Hal Hartley films. Donovan, as always, delivers his lines with an easy charm, finding chemistry with whoever he is opposite in Collaborator, in this case Helmond, Williams, and specifically Morse. In baseball, he’d be considered an ace utility man, easily slotted into any spot in the lineup and capable of playing like a star.
As a director, Donovan also excels, accomplishing what he set out to do — creating a “quiet space” that “draws the audience in”. There are no gimmicks, no flash. It is technically superior effort, and for a first time director, that is an accomplishment. I’d be happy to watch Donovan guide another film, though if I had one major gripe with the overall feel of the film, it would be that the score feels heavy handed in parts, swelling when a softer touch might be more beneficial.
The script is another gripe, though not a major one, just not a stellar example of the talent I think Donovan has. Don’t get me wrong, his dialogue is crisp, with flairs of unexpected comedy, and as I said, the chemistry on screen is ever-present, and the cast doesn’t get sole credit for that.
With that said though, the film has trouble establishing a consistent tone, and his character work needs more polish. Morse, for one, comes off as impossibly goofy in his first interaction with Longfellow and a bit of a lazy right-wing-nutjob caricature in the beginning, though the character is tightened up and more consistent in the later parts of the film.
In fact, by the end of the thing, it was Morse who delivered the best performance, trading vulnerability and menace like a champ in the best thing I’ve seen him in since his guest work on House and a single turn in the criminally under-loved Lights Out. Williams is another loose end, with either the part over-written or the usually reliable brit over-acting and playing her role in an over-sultry manor that is off-putting for nearly the entire time she is on screen. The worst of it? The parts when she is talking to Gus while he is holding Longfellow hostage. Yes, she’s playing an actress, and yes that explains some of the ease that she has in switching from panicked to accommodating, but it just didn’t sit right with me. Another thing that irked me: the 3rd act twist that felt like a needless, cheap way to shoehorn in accountability and a revelation for Longfellow.
Overall, Collaborator is a well acted film with some holes, but an enjoyable enough watch for me to recommend it and give it a B. The film will be released on VOD on June 19th, 2012 and it will also be released theatrically on July 6th at the IFC Center in New York.