When we meet the long face of established Broadway playwright Robert Longfellow, played by first-time writer-director Martin Donovan, there are clear signs of trouble.
He's wandering along city streets at dawn or dusk in a black-on-black suit, bathed in marquee lights and discordant solo saxophone, shooting prolonged gazes at cars passing by. A radio program informs us that Robert's latest play, the meandering American Excursion, has gone bust, sending him "fading into irrelevancy." We later learn that he had personally financed it.
Robert leaves his wife and kids in New York and retreats to his elderly mother's home in Reseda, Calif., where a variety of dubious possibilities present themselves. He could become a script doctor for Hollywood action movies. He could sneak kisses from a starlet whose career he helped make.
Or he could hang out with his mother's neighbour Gus (David Morse), a 57-year-old substance-abusing homophobic racist, formerly imprisoned for manslaughter, unemployed and still living at home with mom.
Robert dabbles in all these potentially miserable options, but his engagement with Gus is Collaborator's essence. Gus wants to do manly stuff with Robert, and suggests target practice and hoisting a few beers. To an extent, Robert encourages this, even starting to use the word "man" to show he's up for a bro-down.
But Robert isn't sure how much time he wants to spend with Gus, or with a macho but juvenile version of himself. He puts Led Zeppelin and Malcolm X posters up on the walls of his teen bedroom only to tear them down.
One night, Robert reluctantly lets Gus bring over beers and joints and pills, unaware that Gus has also brought a gun and the intention to take Robert hostage. What ensues is a case of psychedelic Stockholm Syndrome. Two males in retreat, performing the roles of hostage and hostage-taker, connect.
There is a simmering and vaguely homoerotic tension as Gus watches his hostage pee, or as they play "theatre games" with each other. Morse's hangdog expressions reveal Gus's vulnerability. When Robert and an old flame rekindle passions, it unfortunately comes across like a cornball zombie love-trance, but the relationship between Gus and Robert crackles.
When the men come to blows over the Vietnam War, the film ponders the relationship between politics and life experience. How convinced is each character of his convictions, and why? Admirably, the film also attempts to deal with the complex and often mirrored relationship between ambition and retreat, as two different but similar guys try to sort each other out. The film demands that its audience collaborate on these issues.
Collaborator does a neat job of matching its lugubrious situations to a speedy pace, with a script that constantly adds details to the characters' suggestive back stories. There are some incongruously arch gestures that may not be to every taste – such as a spotlight that pops up uninvited, or the wink in naming a writer "Longfellow" – and the blocking is occasionally more theatrical than cinematic, but Morse and Donovan hold us rapt in this clearly told tale about identity confusion.