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Do Ethan Hawke and Martin Donovan Have the Write Stuff?

June 20, 2012

How to depict the inherently internal and passive life of a writer in a visually dynamic medium like cinema is a question that has bedeviled filmmakers for ages. Some of the most enjoyable attempts have been among the more outlandish: Barton Fink, BarflyNaked Lunch, Adaptation, The Shining and Misery. Perhaps not coincidentally, movies about screenwriters (The Player, The Front) or playwrights (Prick Up Your Ears, Shakespeare in Love) tend to lend themselves to more dramatic or comedic theatrics, than, say, movies about poets (most recent case in point: James Franco’s painfully self-fellating Hart Crane biopic The Broken Tower). Once in a while, subtler stories of novelists, like Sideways and The Squid and the Whale, succeed. But more often, movies about writers descend into the kind of indulgent clichés found in Norman Mailer’s disastrously clumsy Tough Guys Don’t Dance.

Two new films currently available On Demand cast writers as the protagonists in tense, twisted thrillers: The Woman in the Fifth, starring Ethan Hawke as a one-hit wonder novelist spiraling into madness in modern-day Paris, and Collaborator, writer-director-star Martin Donovan’s tale of a fallen playwright taken hostage by a psycho childhood neighbor (David Morse). There are surface similarities between the stories: Both lead characters have estranged wives and glamorous lovers, and each film employs showy artistic flourishes, mostly to good effect. And since Hawke is himself a novelist/screenwriter (he adapted his own tome The Hottest State for the big screen in 2006) and Donovan—a familiar face from his work with indie auteur Hal Hartley as well as his Season 2 arc on Weeds—is crossing over into scriptwriting, both Woman and Collaborator work on a fascinating meta-level.

Adapted by Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love) from Douglas Kennedy’s novel, The Woman in the Fifth plays like a mashup of The Wrong Man and The Trial—call it Hitch-Kafkaesque. As a freshly de-institutionalized American scribe, Hawke—who performs much of his role in French—pursues his wife and daughter to Paree, despite a restraining order against him, and falls into an erotic entanglement with a mysterious (black?) widow, nicely played by Kristin Scott-Thomas. He also engages in some murky criminal activity and is framed for a murder he didn’t commit. It’s all mesmerizingly shot and spun, even if the lingering images of owls and insects suggest a stripped-down version of Terrence Malick’s overgrown and overblown Tree of Life; at a pleasingly spindly 87 minutes, Woman is more like The Twig of Life. But for $6.99 via Amazon’s Instant Video, it’s priced at the proper scale.

I paid the same amount to watch Collaborator via Tribeca Film’s VOD service (it’s not available on Amazon yet), and again, it was worth every penny. Stung by bad reviews for his latest Broadway play, Donovan’s left-leaning Robert Longfellow retreats to the house where he grew up in L.A. and takes refuge with his mother (a smartly cast Katherine Helmond). Once Morse’s Gus, a 57-year-old racist ex-con who still lives with his ma across the street, gets wind that his now-famous old acquaintance has come home again, the emotional mayhem begins. From his early starring role as a sensitive doc on St. Elsewhere to his sinewy work in Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner and The Crossing Guard, Morse has seemingly never given a bad performance, and Collaborator is among his best. The deadpan Donovan matches him every step of the way, and Olivia Williams—a veteran of another literary thriller, Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer—provides solid support as Longfellow’s movie-star paramour.

Neither film sheds a lot of light on the writing process: Gus attempts to get inside Longfellow’s mind via improv exercises, but the effort backfires, even as the scribe develops Stockholm Syndrome with his captor. And Hawke’s apparent writer’s block, while not as suicidally depressing as Nicolas Cage’s in Leaving Las Vegas, seems to trigger his flights of dangerously deranged imagination. Both The Woman in the Fifth and Collaborator climax with single acts of violence, which are all the more shocking for their suddenness. In the end, you’re left with the feeling that you’ve been treated to a tale well-told. And isn’t that every writer’s goal?

What’s your favorite film about the writer’s life? Any Deathtrap, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle or Capote devotees? And who doesn’t love Sunset Boulevard?

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