A working actor with credits across three decades of television and film, including the shitty, doomed DEA boyfriend of Mary-Louise Parker on Weeds, Al Pacino's doomed partner in Christopher Nolan's Insomnia, and a recurring role on NBC's doomed The Firm, Martin Donovan has attained a respectable degree of "oh, that guy" character-actor ubiquity. But fans of acclaimed indie director Hal Hartley are more likely to respond to his appearance on episodes of CSI or Law & Order with, "Holy shit, it's Martin Donovan!" Hartley exploited the skewed energy of Donovan's charisma in Trust, Surviving Desire, and Amateur. The actor also has a penchant for elevating the other performers in a scene, redirecting the viewer's attention by aiming his own at other characters.
Donovan brings this generosity to his directorial debut, Collaborator, in which he plays Robert Longfellow, a flailing, late-career playwright who returns to his boyhood home after the disastrous reception of his latest work. David Morse is Gus, a red-hot redneck, once friends with Robert's deceased older brother, who lives across the street. When Robert allows Gus into the house one night for a beer, he doesn't realize he has been taken hostage until a SWAT team shows up outside -- Gus has shot a liquor-store clerk and fled the scene.
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Donovan's screenplay forces these two different characters into an uncomfortable exploration of their own motivations. When Gus asks Robert (at gunpoint) how the writing process works, the two engage in a series of improvisation games -- a collaboration during which Gus reveals his surprising, adroit imagination and which escalates to a violent epiphany. On one level, it's a dark, funny tragedy, but it's also Donovan's thesis on his own craft.