Following the real-life tragedies of September 11 2001 and subsequent films United 93 (2006) and World Trade Center (2006), America is slowly accepting the reality of massive terrorist attacks on its soil. But rather than tackle the heroics of every day folk like the movies of Paul Greengrass and Oliver Stone, Chris Gorak’s first feature Right at Your Door takes a slightly different approach. Instead, this is a claustrophobic, low-budget look at what might happen during a so-called “dirty bomb” attack on Los Angeles, focussing the film’s attention on the aftermath, and how it affects the relationship between out of work musician Brad (Rory Cochrane) and his executive wife Lexi (Mary McCormack).
After his wife drives into LA for work, Brad hears on the radio that the city has been the victim of three explosive devices that have released massive plumes of toxic ash into the air. Brad’s desperate attempt to drive into Downtown Los Angeles to find his wife is continually thwarted by roadblocks, and the police advise everyone to stay indoors and tape up the doors and windows. Lexi eventually makes it back to the house, but because she is contaminated with the unknown and possibly contagious toxin, which is slowly attacking her respiratory system, Brad makes the difficult and tearful decision not to let her inside.
This low-key drama is tense and gritty with superb performances from both Cochrane and McCormack. With nothing more than distant fires ravaging LA and poisonous ash falling like snow Gorak successfully creates the impression of a city in complete disarray. The perpetrators of the bombs are never named or even speculated upon, and the initial hysteria gives way to a paranoid suspicion of the army and law enforcement officers who appear to be rounding up those infected by the dirty bombs against their will.
In many respects, Right at Your Door takes some of its inspiration from the aftermath of Hurrican Katrina and the subsequent failings of the Federal Government and FEMA. The same mistrust of authority and its inability to grapple with disaster in a timely fashion is echoed in the film. The National Guard and military become bogeymen, their faces hidden by gas masks and biohazard suits, as Brad and Lexi are turned into prisoners in their own home.
Parallels could be drawn with Jim and Hilda in Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows, although without the same naïvety or emotional attachment. Frankly, Brad and Lexi are a spiky couple and occasionally difficult to like, but that only adds a lifelike veneer to their characters.
Right at Your Door is relentlessly depressing and nihilistic, and an upbeat ending seems unlikely from the start (although it’s certainly not a twist as the movie posters claim). But there’s a kind of grim enjoyment to be had from the naturalistic performances and realistic tone. The slim budget might have meant there are no apocalyptic visual effects shots of the disaster with feverish and distraught crowds or buildings collapsing, but that actually works in the movie’s favour, scaling the drama down to human dimensions.
There are some drawbacks to this approach. The news reports we hear broadcast over the radio occasionally sound staged and fake, and I find it hard to believe that the media wouldn’t jump to blame somebody for the attack, even if the Federal inertia rings horribly true.
Harrowing and fraught, Right at Your Door packs a powerful punch, and Gorak has, on a shoestring budget of well under a million dollars, created a dire warning about the effects of terrorism on an unprepared country and the difficult moral decisions left in its wake.
Right at Your Door (2006)
Dir. Chris Gorak
Stars: Rory Cochrane, Mary McCormack, Tony Perez, Scotty Noyd Jr.
Genre: Drama, Thriller