When someone says a movie feels “stagey,” they usually are referring to the setting, with the movie confined to a single or few locations.
But other times that can refer to the characters; for some reason, in theater you can get away with creating outsized characters that are archetypes in a way that you rarely can in movies. On stage, the actors are at a distance from the audience, so the acting almost has to be bigger, clearer. But the movie camera creates intimacy with the audience, and having a stereotype that close up often doesn’t work as well.
Canadian actor Martin Donovan’s debut as a writer-director, the thriller “Collaborator,” is stagey on both counts. I didn’t mind the confined locations at all, since the movie follows a hostage situation between two very different middle-aged men. What worked less well for me was Donovan’s insistence on making the two men each “stand” for half of America, or at least the halves of America he sees.
Donovan plays a Robert Longfellow, a once-promising playwright whose career has sunk to the point where he’s considering doing touch-up jobs on Hollywood horror screenplays. He returns to his childhood home in Reseda, California, where he meets an old childhood acquaintance, Gus (David Morse).
Gus is a hard-drinking, blue-collar right-winger, the polar opposite of the soft-spoken, liberal Robert. Gus also has some trouble with the law, and when the cops come a-knocking, Gus panicks and takes Robert hostage.
What follows is what’s know in theater as a “two-hander,” as the two characters drink beer and talk, Gus waves his gun around, and the two deliberately different men find common ground in their shared disappointments about how life has turned out.
“Collaborator” would have been much better if it had dropped the hostage subplot altogether. Donovan doesn’t seem interested in generating any tension from the situation, and the heart of the movie is really just the two men shooting the breeze. Both Donovan and Morse qualify for me as character actors I’d watch in anything, and they’re both good here, with Donovan’s paper-dry delivery playing off against the florid, raging Gus. Morse actually manages to make Gus both sympathetic and even funny, as when he gleefully agrees to talk on the phone with a famous Hollywood actress (Olivia Williams) who Robert knows.
But Donovan’s skill as a filmmaker is less proven; as I said, the screenplay draws both men fairly broad, defining them mostly by their red-state or blue-state tendencies. And the filmmaking is pretty uninspired, the camera often held still in a medium shot as he switches back and forth from one character in a conversation to the other.
The special features on “Collaborator” consist of a couple of interviews with Donovan and Williams that don’t tell you anything about their characters that you couldn’t glean from the film.