It's a beautiful morning in L.A.: Young married couple Brad (Rory Cochrane) and Lexi (Mary McCormack) are trying to unpack after moving in to their new home two weeks ago: She's off to work downtown, and he's going to deal with the cable guy, pick up the dry cleaning – it's a perfectly normal day.
And then a series of simultaneous explosions send plumes of thick smoke into the sky. The smoke is revealed to contain toxins. Panic rules the streets and the airwaves. What's going on is obvious, but no one knows what's actually happening. Written and directed by Chris Gorak, Right at Your Door is a short, sharp shock of a film – not perfect, not transcendent, but certainly one that's listened – and that speaks -- to our collective fears and anxieties in the post-Katrina, post-9/11 world.
(More after the jump. ...) It's hard to pull off high-concept, low-budget thrills: It's difficult to evoke the apocalypse on the cheap. But Right at Your Door's script and shooting style have a smart, brisk economy to them. Lexi and Brad have just moved in … which not only explains why they have a lot of plastic sheeting around as word comes over the radio to seal your home off from the toxin-laden outside air, but also why they don't have cable yet and have to rely on the radio as their only source of information from the larger world … and then you realize that radio broadcasts aren't just more dramatically laden with potential as panicked voices make your imagination run wild, but also a lot cheaper to fake for the film than TV news. Gorak – a production designer and art director for films from Fight Club to The Hudsucker Proxy – has clearly thought about how to carefully construct the illusion of blind, heaving panic.
Lexi's out in the city when the explosions happen, and the next-door neighbor's handyman Alvaro (Tony Perez) comes over to … be afraid? Find safety in numbers? Be near another human? It's never quite said, but as the radio news bulletins instruct civilians to seal their homes, the two tape and work … and then listen as the toxic nature of the smoke produced by the bombs makes it imperative that any person exposed to the smoke be kept isolated from unaffected people to avoid transmitting a biological warfare agent ... and then deal with that cold equation of lifeboat morality as Lexi manages to make it back home. (Often, critics can nitpick a thriller: Why didn't the protagonists do this, or do that? Now and then, these are valid questions ... and now and then, you have to ask how clearly you'd be thinking if the person you loved were coated in toxic ash and someone else's blood as your exhausted adrenal glands were devastating the capacity for crisp, logical thinking you're able to summon in the comfort of the movie theater.)
Gorak manages to capture the way an attack like this would burn through resources like a funeral pyre and turn all our best-laid plans to ashes. When Lexi's mom calls her daughter from far away, she offers motherly advice: Get to a hospital, the news says they have specialists on the way. Lexi's furious and sad: "Mom, your news is not what's really happening." Right at Your Door has already been purchased by Lionsgate – who purchased the similarly low-budget, couple-in-peril Sundance film Open Water, but I found Right at Your Door a lot more satisfying – and more anxiety-inducing – than Open Water; it doesn't hurt that McCormack and Cochrane are (unlike Open Water's stars) professional actors. There's also a twist in the film that slightly undermines what's gone before – as if the desire to be clever overcame the intent to tell the story.
Movies are very good at showing us things we don't know – alien life forms, documentaries about social orders we've never been part of, wacky slapstick comedy; any film that we have a frame of reference to compare to is going to be found wanting against our memory. Right at Your Door can't re-create the sick, slick fear of that Tuesday morning when the world changed, but it knows that the dogs of war are fear and panic, and – despite its flaws – puts us close enough to their howls and sharp-toothed bite to have us wonder and worry as they capture us in their jaws.
Others on Right at Your Door: The Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt called it "a tough movie" that powerfully portrays "the grim realities of the situation -- the panic, frustration, poor communications, conflicting media information and creeping sense of dread." On the other hand, Variety's Todd McCarthy was initially impressed, but ended up feeling that the film "quickly fritter[ed] away [audience] involvement by concentrating almost exclusively on two characters who are both annoying and boring."