After his newest effort closes after two weeks, playwright Robert Longfellow (Martin Donovan) starts to feel the walls closing in. He's been trying to recapture the acclaim and success of his earlier works, but each new flop gives way to harsher criticism and diminishing box office returns. Robert's dedication to his writing has also distanced him from his wife and kids, a problem he'll have to confront after a final retreat to Los Angeles, where he'll stay with his mother (Katherine Helmond) while he entertains re-write work on commercial material he has no interest in. Robert also plans to talk to his former muse Emma Stiles (Olivia Williams), an actress who got her start in his plays and moved onto an A-list movie career. She's found a book she wants to develop into a screenplay, and he has an old relationship he hopes to rekindle.
Directed and written by Donovan himself, the early material is pretty straightforward "struggle of the artist" stuff, likely extrapolated from Donovan's own experiences. Robert stares at the wall in his bedroom and sees the blank faces of an underwhelmed audience, while the audio of two morning DJs cheerfully (if sympathetically) reading from a savage New York Times review can be heard. Later, a casually effusive agent (Julian Richings) offers his condolences and compliments, while trying to pitch Robert a gig giving some "dignity" to the characters in a slasher movie. "We have the savage killing," he says, reassuringly. On his way home from the meeting, Robert drives through Los Angeles, and there are flashing lights on every corner.
That's when Gus (David Morse) enters the picture. When Robert was in high school, his older brother was friends with Gus. Now 53 years old, Gus is still living at home, across the street from Robert's mother's house, and when he sees that Robert is back in town, he demands to throw back a couple of beers with Robert. Robert manages to manuever his way out of fulfilling that obligation once, but the second time, Gus corners him, first with a beer and a joint, and later with a handgun, which he uses to hold Robert hostage. Robert is concerned at first (not just because he's being held hostage, but because his mother will have to wait outside, and because he was on his way to commit to his affair), but Gus doesn't seem to have much of a motive, other than the multiple cases of beer he brought with him.
Morse is a well known character actor, famous for playing heavies in everything from The Long Kiss Goodnight to Dancer in the Dark, but his performance here is truly remarkable. For the most part, he's riotously funny, conveying a man who is not just blunt in the sense that he has no filter, but almost psychologically and physically blunt, in the sense that he tends to think and express himself in emphatic, short bursts. Although Gus refuses to tell Robert his motivations, Morse telegraphs Gus' emotional state in a way that illustrates the character's simplicity without making his work seem simple, which is really impressive feat. He also lowers his voice to a pitch that somehow summarizes the character perfectly, and Donovan can't resist tapping into Morse's naturally kind eyes, which convey a comforting innocence.
Once Gus decides to hold Robert in the house, the film is basically a two-man show, with Williams dropping in via the telephone. It's not surprising that Donovan wrote a role to his own strengths, but it's nice to know that he seems to know what those strengths are, playing the whole situation with a low-key touch that accentuates the comedy. His direction becomes simplistic in a way that accentuates and highlights the performances. Robert's familiarity with Gus makes the whole hostage situation fairly interesting, because Robert knows Gus isn't likely to hurt him. Instead, they casually chat about Robert's career, Gus' lack of one, and Emma, who Gus is a fan of. A section of the film where Robert calls Emma so that Gus can talk to her is an effective summary of everything Donovan's film does successfully: Morse's performance, Donovan's performance, comedy, and a hint of Gus' anger.
Sadly, for the film to end, there will need to be more than a hint of Gus' anger, and that's where the film starts to lose focus. While I don't necessarily disagree with Donovan's comment in the extras that a film ought to express a point of view if it wants to be worthwhile, a political viewpoint in the final 20 minutes really sticks out like a sore thumb, totally derailing the film's captivating vibe. It's tricky because not only could the opinion be viewed as a metaphor, but also that, despite being set up earlier in the film, coming from Donovan's mouth, in a film Donovan directed and wrote, it's hard to argue that it is not Donovan's own opinion as much as the character's, and that automatically feels preachy, whether or not you agree with it (for the record, if it is a metaphor, I do agree, so my problems with the moment are not philosophical). The film tries to right itself and partially succeeds, but slips again with a vague ending that the viewer is presumably meant to interpret.
I've seen quite a few DVD covers in my time, and I honestly can't believe that this artwork -- a close-up on two faces, separated by the title in the middle, with a gun poking into the frame of one of the pictures, and a generic, un-detailed background -- is not simply a template that someone just plugs some faces into. Bonus points to whoever did this art for adding what looks like an explosion behind Morse (something that definitely does not happen in this movie) and using a "rough" font and brush to further emphasize this simple comedy as a gritty, hard-hitting action movie. Photos selected for the back cover are hilariously chosen to further this concept, with gritted teeth, making out, and there's one of those "award" olive-leaf symbols that trumpets the film's "Best Actor" award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, but...forgets to credit an actor (it almost looks like Karlovy Vary was the "actor" who won). The film's original theatrical poster sends a much more accurate vibe.
The Video and Audio
Collaborator gets a distinctly underwhelming 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer. The film does have a very subdued look, with gray-for-white and a generally dim, faintly shadowy look, none of which transfers well to DVD, but even the daytime scenes here display artifacting and poor contrast. Some detail is visible, but the image is very soft, losing texture in hair and clothing from even a medium shot. Night footage of Los Angeles looks especially terrible, crawling with noise and blocking. Banding is generally subtle but still noticeable.
Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is more average, effectively delivering the sound for a movie that mostly consists of two people talking, with a third person dropping in over the phone. Again, despite what the cover says, this is not an action movie, so there's really not much going on here other than the occasional cue from Manels Favre's subdued score. There isn't even all that much ambience in the house, although occasionally the film will cut to a slightly more crowded scene outside, with cop cars and police officers milling about. English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing are provided.
Two short interviews make up the extras, with Martin Donovan (3:44) and Olivia Williams (4:16). The former seems to have been conducted for the DVD, with Donovan appearing to look back on the film, while Williams' interview was clearly captured on the set. It's a real shame that there is no interview with Morse, or even a commentary by Donovan, Morse, and Williams, which would've been very interesting.
Trailers for The Sweeney, Starbuck, Special Forces, Cosmopolis, and Virginia play before the main menu. An original theatrical trailer for Collaborator is also included.
Despite struggling to stick the landing, Collaborator is a very entertaining movie, elevated by excellent performances by director/writer Donovan and especially Morse. Recommended.
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