Martin Donovan, David Morse, Olivia Williams, Melissa Auf der Maur, Katherine Helmond, Eileen Ryan
US theatrical: 6 Jul 2012 (Limited release)
The rage of a disillusioned America gets a cool and ironic probing in Martin Donovan’s Collaborator. A chamber piece about a playwright on the skids who is taken hostage by a troubled neighbor, the film alludes only indirectly to the reasons for both men’s anger and dissatisfaction. Donovan’s spare script provides an airy and open-ended structure, but the film, his first as a director, makes its own definite contribution to the national dialogue, the one where everybody is always shouting past each other, unable to hear what anyone else is saying.
Donovan casts himself as Robert, a once feted artist renowned for his “controversial” work. The introduction gives us his backstory by way of a painfully authentic and catty morning radio team dissecting his latest play. We meet him in the cold ashes of that aftermath, retreating from New York to his mother’s quiet house in Los Angeles. There, he ducks calls from his wife (played by Smashing Pumpkins and Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur) and gins up interest in a screenplay idea as an excuse to get close to his former muse, the now-married and very famous actress Emma (Olivia Williams).
In the middle of Robert’s self-pitying regression—he even pins up rock posters from his childhood on his old bedroom walls—he gets a visit from Gus (David Morse), the half-friendly, half-bellicose guy Robert vaguely remembers from childhood who still lives across the street. An unemployed alcoholic who retains a sparkle of friendliness in his weary eyes, Gus invites himself in to have a few beers and smoke a joint with Robert. Gus talks in circles and Robert plays along in a bad attempt to pretend interest. That is, until a SWAT team comes to the door and says they’re looking for Gus, now holding a handgun to Robert’s head.
Even as the crisis occurs, the film remains lean and detached. But it has all it needs: a gun in Gus’ hand, the cops circling outside (mostly unseen and unheard), and two men talking. At this point, Donovan also puts himself quite deliberately into the background to give room to Morse, who conveys with a few quick flashes of rage and others of quiet insight Gus’ remarkable complexity. He’s written to be one of those men who have fallen through the cracks in the American foundation, who fear their failure and are ripping their fingers to bloody shreds trying to hold onto whatever it is that they have left.
Veering from chummy and engaging to morose and choleric, Gus is as stunted in his development as Robert. But where Robert has won accolades for making art out of his limits, Gus has nothing. He’s a middle-aged and temperamental drunk who talks like a teenager (“Dude, dude”) and lives with his mother. To stay alive, he clings to a gut-deep worship of the military and a self-defeating determination not to take a job beneath him: he rejects the idea of working for “slave wages,” and shouts that it’s better all that work goes to the “Chinks.”
And yet, furious as he is, Gus only really wants to connect. To avoid answering Robert’s questions about what crime he’s committed and what he’s looking to accomplish, Gus plays games as a way of getting Robert to talk to him and not down to him. From this develops one of the script’s cleverer curlicues of dialogue, in which Robert plays theater games with Gus, inventing scenes as though he were writing a play. The two of them are escaping from themselves, from their situation, from each other. The film underscores their mutual desire to get away in an unexpected moment, when Gus reveals his admiration for Emma and Robert calls her: within a few minutes, Gus is curled up on the couch, chatting away like a high school wallflower who can’t believe the popular girl is actually talking to him.
It’s clear that Donovan is working out a variation on the Two Americas theme here. (Barack Obama’s four-year-old comment that alienated members of the working class “cling to guns or religion” hangs in the air here quite obviously, unspoken.) Robert and Gus have both chosen their roles (or perhaps they’ve been assigned). The dispassionate urban intellectual and flag-waving suburban patriot try to play nice with one another at first, though they don’t seem able to understand the other. The conflict is only sparked near the end, when the reasons for their strong and very different opinions about the military become clear. Even here, though, at this point of crisis, Donovan leaves open questions about we come to see as the whole endeavor’s overt theatricalism. Collaborator is a sharp and vital debut that keeps viewers guessing at all the right moments.