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.
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.