‘Collaborator’: Choose partners

July 3, 2012

Where do writers get their ideas? How do they go about putting words in other people’s mouths?

To writers, it seems like an unanswerable question: It’s a compulsion, a need, an itch that needs to be scratched on a semi-regular basis. But the process seems like a mysterious one to some people, who can’t imagine … well, that’s the problem – they can’t imagine.

Which is one of the ideas at the center of “Collaborator.” The film, an assured directorial debut for actor Martin Donovan (who also wrote the script), is smart, funny and tense, featuring a riveting performance by David Morse.

Donovan himself is at the center of the film, as playwright Robert Longfellow. Initially glimpsed suffering the throes of a critical drubbing of his newest play in New York, he heads home to his mother’s house in the San Fernando Valley. He’s trying to escape the humiliation, as well as the wife and family he’s neglected while producing his play; his cover is concern for his mother (Katherine Helmond), who he thinks should move to an assisted-living facility.

His agent tries to sell him on doing a polish (for a big paycheck) on a big action film, not exactly Robert’s comfort zone. But he’s also drawn to an actress, Emma Stiles (Olivia Williams), with whom he had a flirtation years before, when she acted in his plays. He reunites with her, promising to try to adapt a screenplay from a book she’s sent him.

But Robert finds himself the object of attention from a neighbor named Gus (David Morse), a friend of Robert’s late older brother who still lives across the street from the Longfellow family home with his own mother. Gus spots Robert and drops by a couple of times to try to coax Robert into having a beer with him, an offer that Robert politely dodges – until the moment he can no longer avoid it.

As they’re drinking and talking (and smoking a joint Gus has with him), police cars start rolling up in front of Gus’ house. When a SWAT officer knocks on Robert’s door to evacuate him so they can use the house as an operations center, the truth emerges: Gus is the object of their surveillance and Gus has a gun – which means Robert is his hostage until further notice.

Why? It doesn’t really matter. Gus is a lifelong screw-up, the guy who never held a steady job because he doesn’t like to be told what to do and who has created his own little world of weed, beer and arbitrary explosions of violence. Robert’s mother has mentioned that Gus did time for beating a man to death in a bar fight – and now Gus has let his temper write a check that the cops want to cash.

But to Donovan’s credit, this isn’t a movie that cares about shoot-’em-ups, firepower or stand-offs in general. Rather, it’s about the slippery give-and-take between Robert and Gus, who get into a discussion about how to write a play. Before long, the unlikely duo are playing theater games, making up scenes and improvising in ways that get progressively closer to the truth of Gus’ situation.

“Collaborator” is spare and thoughtful, a quiet film about the shifting dynamic between two guys having a beer. Yes, Gus has a gun but you never get the sense that it’s more than a prop in the drama Gus is writing about himself and the police. Or is Robert the real author here, a man trying to jump-start his own creative process through an unexpected encounter?

Donovan doesn’t spell things out – and indeed brings the film to a conclusion that will have you questioning everything you’ve seen up to that point. It’s a mind-tickler that keeps you guessing, thanks to Donovan’s refusal to cater to an audience that wants all the answers. Just when the action sets you on edge, he throws in a laugh; just when you relax, he ratchets up the tension.

Donovan himself is quite fine as the writer: diffident, a little remote, seemingly playing at being a regular guy in his conversations with Gus until he is actually forced to engage with him. Morse is a force to be reckoned with, at once shaggy and threatening, a time bomb with the smiling affect of the stoner next door. He never turns into a raging psycho, which would be too easy. Instead, the threat is implied; his look darkens in subtle ways and his voice shifts timbres. He has a gun but he doesn’t need to brandish it; the threat is there even without it.

“Collaborator” isn’t perfect; it has some coincidences for which you need to swallow hard, and a handful of loose threads. But it’s an involving film that never gives away too much and keeps pulling you in.

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