Sundance film review: ‘Right at Your Door’

Some movies should only be seen at home, with all the doors locked up and the windows shut tight to keep your worst fears trapped outside.

“Right at Your Door” (Thousand Words) is not one of them. Not by a long shot.

Essentially, the premise is simple: on an average May day in Los Angeles, Lexi (played by Mary McCormack, better known to students as Kate Harper of “The West Wing”) heads off to work downtown while her bedraggled, out-of-work stereotype musician husband Brad (Rory Cochrane) stays at home, perhaps to practice making his hair look more slept on. Unfortunately, whatever plans he has are quickly shattered as a series of explosions rip through Los Angeles, causing massive carnage and devastation. Brad tries to head out after his wife, but quickly finds the roads jammed and the disaster zones blocked off by the (as always) trigger-happy Los Angeles Police Department.

Unable to save Lexi, he retreats home and discovers the neighbors’ handyman Alvaro (Tony Perez) hiding inside, also cut off from his wife by the disaster zones. He informs Brad that the news says the explosions were dirty bombs, and that toxic ash is now drifting over the L.A. basin – so they have to seal the house up airtight. Perhaps Tom Ridge wasn’t completely full of it when he told Americans to stock up on duct tape and plastic sheeting. With the house sealed airtight, nothing can come inside – not even Lexi, who shows up a few hours later, covered in ash.

From there on, the movie becomes as much a character study as anything else, as the main characters try to come to grips with the ends of their respective worlds. Brad begins sealing himself deeper into the house so his wife can come in, but isolating himself even more; Lexi, in turn, tries her best to keep her mind off her near-certain death as she grows sicker and dead birds rain from the trees like ripe fruit. And all the time, she and Brad try to reach out to each other through the glass and plastic that separates them – right up until an ending with a twist worthy of Hitchcock.

First-time writer and director Chris Gorak has done an incredible job with the film. One can’t help but feel a bit of panic at the sight of smoke rising up over a burning Los Angeles, made all the more real by the simplicity of the images. (Interestingly, Gorak actually used digitally modified footage of smoke from Iraqi oil fires for the effect.) Despite the fact that the majority of the film takes place within a tiny house, and that the main characters aren’t able to even touch, it never feels slow or tedious. The relationship between Brad and Lexi isn’t overly dramatic or played up; the actors are allowed to just interact, and McCormack and Cochrane play their parts exceptionally well.

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of the film is the news reports broadcast over the radio; it serves as Brad’s only source of information beyond his own house throughout the whole story, and it’s used chillingly well, leaving the images to the viewer’s imagination. Gorack actually wrote a separate 50-page script just for the news reports, and his extra dedication shines through.

“Right at Your Door” is especially gripping considering today’s environment. Seven years ago, such a movie would have just been seen as fantasy, as likely as an asteroid slamming into the ocean or Arnold Schwarzenegger heading the world’s seventh-largest economy. But today, it seems all too chilling – and realistic. Instead of focusing on the Jack Bauers of the world, it focuses on the John Smiths, the people who don’t manage to go out and heroically save lives in times of trouble but are more preoccupied with keeping themselves and their loved ones safe. Perhaps the greatest compliment one can pay to the film is that it makes one really think – all the way home.

Worldwide distribution rights to “Right at Your Door” have been purchased by Lions Gate Films. A release date has not been set.

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