Saturday, July 14, 2012

Potentially riveting "Collaborator" comes up empty

Collaborator (2012)
87 min., not rated.
A filmmaker can risk it all when setting his story in one location with few characters, however, it's not unheard-of to see riveting cinema as if it were grounded on the stage. In "Collaborator," actor-writer-director Martin Donovan (making his debut) hermetically seals two tortured men, one holding the other hostage, in a one-story house. What might be found in a boilerplate Hollywood thriller written by David Mamet, such an intimate setup for this indie chamber piece should hold tension and urgency. But virtually, it's just two men sitting on a couch, doing a lot of talking, occasionally getting up to void and stretch the legs.
Critically savaged for his last few stage performances, married New York playwright Robert Longfellow (Martin Donovan) takes a break from the city in the San Fernando Valley to stay with his mother (Katherine Helmond). Former neighbor Gus (David Morse), who's done time for manslaughter and currently unemployed, has been living with his mother for a while and wants to catch up and grab some beers with Robert sometime. Meanwhile, calling up his former lover Emma Stiles (Olivia Williams), an actress, that Robert hasn't spoken to in eight years, they rekindle their strong connection. The same night Robert is about to go out the door to act upon his feelings with Emma, Gus shows up, hoping they could hang out and throw back some brewskies. Robert gives in, and while they're smoking a joint in the back bedroom, a squat team pulls up to Robert's mother's house in order to position themselves inside the house and get a view of the armed suspect across the street (Gus). But Gus decides to hold Robert hostage.

Donovan is understatedly repressed, with his cool, calm cadence of a psychologist separating him from Morse, acting with an unstable but organic recklessness, in the showier, more histrionic role. For 77 minutes (sans credits), the interest of Donovan's two-hander hinges on the interplay between Robert and Gus. Both men are variations on each other, suffering from a state of going nowhere, and ultimately, the film suffers from the same state. Things really seem ready to ignite when both men improvise a role-playing game as if it were a job interview that leads to the recalling of Robert's older brother, who was killed in Vietnam. But before then, the film is stuck on a low, steady boil. There's simmering and more simmering, with the unpredictable Gus taking everyone down with him, until it has only to lead to its most logical conclusion.

More of a tortured acting/writing exercise than a fully fleshed-out character piece, "Collaborator" has two great acting foils working with a potentially substantive script that has no grand point. It's easy to respect Donovan's stage-bound approach, but hard to feel consistently engaged with the material. Some of his writing has a distinctive rhythm, but Donovan's staging lacks the same kind of energy. Interiors (photographed by Julie Kirkwood) are pretty dingy, and when Manels Favre's ringing music score tries to wake one up, it might just drive the viewer up the wall. While a film should fill you with emotion, ideas, or both, "Collaborator" does a lot of empty jibber-jabbering. At least Donovan challenged himself, but we have yet to see what he can do as a triple-threat talent.


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