A lithe and lean one-man show, “Collector” is a crackling little high-wire act only sent tumbling to earth by its very final one-twist-too-many. Up to that point, it’s a kicky pleasure, a triumph of sharp scripting, shooting, editing, and acting over the obvious limits of time and resources. A canny first film from Russian director Alexei Krasovskiy, it was shot in one single week, almost entirely in one single location, with just one single actor, so it’s a pretty singular achievement all round. And to deliver a credible genre-inflected thriller in that mold takes not just a gapless, unflagging screenplay, but inventive camerawork and a massive central performance, to keep us all from fidgeting in our seats. But that’s exactly what Krasovskiy brings with “Collector,” a movie that makes no claims to being high art, but should be admired for its artfulness nonetheless.
And speaking of artful, our main character here is quite the dodger, a fast-talking, quick thinking, utterly amoral Muscovite debt collector, and the largely autonomous star operator in his company (“I make more money in a day than your whole department does in a month,” he snarls to his boss at one point). Artur (Konstantin Khabenskiy) is a master manipulator, a flawless liar, and apparently a heartless bastard, impervious to threats or entreaties, certain there is no sob story he hasn’t heard a million times before, and none that he has ever fully believed. Artur is not just good at his evil job, he enjoys it, relishing the inevitable capitulation of his victims as a lion does its kill.
Yet this is a subtler, more psychological method of debt collection than the old kicking doors and cracking skulls model that more readily springs to mind as the cinematic archetype. From atop a modern high-rise, in a sleekly furnished office with a plate glass window overlooking a terrace and the lights of the metropolis beyond, Artur gets even the most incorrigible creditors to cough up using no implement more threatening than a telephone receiver.
We always hear both sides of the conversation, and that, along with the conceit of assistant Liza (Polina Agureeva) and security guard Evgeny (Kirill Pletnyov) talking to him from adjacent rooms, we get the impression of a film a great deal more populous that it really is — similar to the trick that the nearest touchpoint, Steven Knight’s “Locke,” managed to pull off. And the dialogue is so crisply written and gamely performed that we get a sense of them all as people anyway.
Artur is fielding phone calls with his girlfriend, making evening plans and checking in on a dog he found hit by a car and dropped off at a vet (could it be he has a heart after all?) when an anonymous woman rings in to tell him of an incriminating video she’s disseminating online, in revenge for the suicide of her husband, whom Artur had been hounding. In a witty little flourish, we never see the video (indeed, shots of phone and computer screens are thankfully few), but the bits we hear described suggest something unspeakable, involving Artur near a nursery school, some frightened children, an old man, and a fire. It’s horrific enough that Artur is soon jobless and fighting for his livelihood and reputation, insisting the video is a fake.
Adding a whole new dimension to the film is the excellent score from Dmitry Selipanov. Occasionally lush and orchestral, more often the music is percussion only, à la “Birdman.” In a busier, fussier affair, such an obtrusive soundtrack could be a distraction, but here it proves inspired, a liberating sonic dimension to a film whose formal constraints might otherwise prove stifling. Denis Firstov’s curious camera is too mobile for that to ever really be an issue, though: The wealth of visual variations on the theme of “man on phone” is impressive, while the clever blocking of Khabenskiy’s nervy, physical performance also keeps everything kinetic.
Moving at a brisk clip for its efficient and appropriately slender 73-minute runtime, the twists and revelations come thick and fast, and the parallel arcs of redemption and revelation unfold in a fluid manner that only occasionally feels contrived. And a pleasing note of anti-climactic ambiguity is allowed to creep in, too, just before the letdown of that overly deterministic ending. Still, this is one gymnastic routine you remember much more for its feats of catch and release than for its slightly stumbled dismount and should prove an excellent calling card for its director: It already feels like the kind of film future Russian genre fans will go back and discover after the fact of Krasovskiy’s mainstream success, only to find that all the ingredients were there from the start.