Chat Roulette

Martin Donovan and David Morse in Donovan’s “Collaborator.” | TRIBECA FILMS

After years in front of the camera as an actor, Martin Donovan makes an assured writing and directing debut with the compelling drama “Collaborator.” The filmmaker stars as Robert Longfellow, a playwright once touted as “a contender for the voice of his generation.” His latest play, however, has just opened to a review claiming “his reputation as a writer is fading into irrelevancy.”

Donovan creates an affecting, elegiac tone in the pre-credit scenes. A radio voice-over recounting his negative review is juxtaposed with scenes of Robert — alone in the city and away from his sleeping family — that reinforce his despair and isolation.

Robert leaves New York to take a meeting in Los Angeles and also visit his aging mother (Katherine Helmond), after assuring his long-suffering wife Alice (Melissa Auf der Maur) that he’ll “put it all back together” when he returns. He hopes to sell their apartment and promises to spend more time with his neglected family, yet it seems entirely possible Robert has no plans to go back home to his wife and kids.

Robert is serious, terse, and somewhat detached when interacting with others –– almost too closed off to engender any sympathy. But viewers’ feelings about him will change over the course of the film — which is why he is an intriguing protagonist despite his initial outward appearance.

In LA, Robert tries to assist his elderly mother, who would prefer to care for him. After his meeting with a producer who wants him to collaborate on a script rewrite, he reunites with Emma (Olivia Williams), an actress he knows, and they share an intimate kiss.

These early scenes set up “Collaborator” for its pivotal second act in which Robert encounters Gus (David Morse), his mother’s neighbor from across the street. Gus is an ex-con, who drinks dozens of beers and peppers his sentences with an equal number of F-bombs. Now 52 and living at his parents’ home, Gus has failed in his life, not unlike Robert. As Robert is about to head out one evening to meet Emma, Gus arrives on his doorstep with a six-pack and asks Robert to have a drink with him. Though he would prefer that Gus go home and leave him alone, Robert politely invites him in. Soon, Gus gets drunk and takes Robert hostage with a loaded gun.

“Collaborator” is stagey in depicting the intensity of this encounter, but Donovan keeps the shifting balance of power between the two men interesting. Robert and Gus both seem backed into corners with nothing left to lose. Gus cannot come out of this situation a winner, yet he manages to exhibit control. Robert strives to maintain a sense of his independence even in the face of hopelessness. In one scene, he wants to urinate, but can’t with Gus watching him.

Over the course of their standoff, Gus and Robert come to represent, respectively, reality and make-believe. Gus asks Robert to show how he writes his plays. Inviting Gus to collaborate by doing improvisation exercises, Roberts instructs him, “Say what you think — be yourself.” Is Robert truly welcoming Gus’ assistance or just trying to gain his trust? Viewers must decide for themselves. The film’s curious denouement is also open to various interpretations, as is the title. Who here is the collaborator?

Donovan his written a smart and provocative film that explores the motivations of complex characters. He also shows himself to be a shrewd and restrained director. The film sags a bit during an extended phone conversation Robert encourages Gus to have with Emma, but Donovan creates a spark with a revelation in the last act.

The filmmaker also coaxes a terrific performance out of Morse, who wisely resists being showy, playing up Gus’ pathos rather than his menace. When Gus has his back to the camera, he is at his most powerful but also his most vulnerable. Donovan appropriately underplays as Robert, as well.

These two strong performances elevate the modest “Collaborator,” a story that might otherwise be better suited to the stage than the screen.

COLLABORATOR | Directed by Martin Donovan | Tribeca Films | Opens Jul. 6 | IFC Center | 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. |