At the core of Martin Donovan’s Collaborator, the first directorial effort from the Hal Hartley staple, for which he also wrote the script, is the ties that bind the stasis of artistic inspiration with the repression of personal passions. At the start, Robert Longfellow (Donovan) is on a trip to L.A. after suffering merciless reviews of his latest play in New York. Staying under his mother’s roof, he considers a pair of offers: a for-hire polish job on a horror film and a serious relationship with Emma (Olivia Williams), a renowned actress who got her start in his plays. People are kind about his latest, but Donovan’s somber mug and smirks reek of cynicism and arthritic imagination.
The polish job doesn’t interest Robert much, but Emma isn’t as easily dismissed, despite Robert’s wife (Hole’s Melissa Auf der Mar) and kids back in New York. But the entire issue takes second chair when Gus (David Morse), Robert’s drunken, bigoted neighbor and erstwhile pal, takes Robert hostage, after gunning down a liquor store clerk. As the men mull over a shared past and indulge in bits of theatrical exercise, the film begins to resemble My Dinner with André more than it does Dog Day Afternoon, though things never get as deliciously heady as they did in Louis Malle’s grandiose philosophical dissertation. The banter is playful and brazenly self-aware, but the ideas are a bit stale and don’t lead anywhere emotionally substantial or narratively spontaneous.
Collaborator benefits unerringly from Morse, a phenomenal actor who portrays Gus, both physically and verbally, as a shaggy-dog type, awkward, gregarious, and oddly lovable. Gus is neither obnoxious nor chiseled from some smug archetype, and Morse makes him a perfect foil for Donovan’s quasi-neurotic, sarcastic, yet adaptable scribe, a role that fits comfortably on but calls on little new in Donovan. Their conversations, including a simulated job interview and a surprise phone call to Emma, produce exquisite verbal rhythms, but also unearth dark memories, chiefly that of Robert’s older brother, Gus’s once-was best friend, who was killed in Vietnam.
The war talk becomes histrionic and there’s a sense that Donovan is toying with the idea of the political obscuring and even augmenting the personal. Yet, Donovan takes an abrupt and violent bow at a seemingly minor moment of resolution—a not entirely jarring but deeply unsatisfying shrug of a climax. There’s certainly verve in Donovan’s writing, and he has an easy way with his cast, which also includes Katherine Helmond as Robert’s mother, but Donovan’s direction lacks a unique visual signature. The script’s natural home is the stage and Donovan, working with DP Julie Kirkwood, doesn’t work hard to dissuade the dull theatricality of the piece. The story suggests that stasis offers mundane comfort but ultimately leads to eruptive, lacerating pain, though Donovan, as evidenced, doesn’t seem to take so much stock in this, thus rendering the film engaging but flimsy.