Film—good film that is—is just like art. It holds up a mirror to society and reflects it back. In the years since 9/11, we’ve become so paranoid of both terrorism and our government’s response to it; a film which, in my view, accurately reflects that paranoia is “Right at Your Door,” which was shown in a few theatres last year and was just released on DVD.
In the movie, terrorists set off a series of dirty bombs in downtown Los Angeles. A young man named Brad (Rory Cochrane) is at home but his wife Lexi (Mary McCormack) is downtown. Through the radio, Brad is told to seal off his house with duct tape and plastic wrap, and avoid anyone who’s been exposed to the explosions because they are contaminated with toxic, biological disease. When Lexi finally returns, she wants to come into the house, but Brad can’t let her. You can imagine how this incredible situation tests the bonds of matrimony.
Eventually the authorities come, but despite promises on the radio, they are no help at all—their main goal is to keep Brad from interfering with them as they collect samples. Lexi meanwhile has joined a neighbor, who has also been exposed, in an attempt to get to a hospital; naturally that proves futile since there are a million people trying to get into the hospital and they can only treat a few thousand.
The ending is a bit of a shocker. A surprise twist that I didn’t see coming, although after the fact, looking back, it makes perfect sense. Those are my favorite kind of endings. It’s kind of like an old “Twilight Zone” episode, except dealing with post-9/11 themes instead of 60s themes.
There is very good chemistry between the two main actors, despite the fact that they are physically separated from each other for most of the film by barriers of wood, glass, and plastic. Although they don’t have much dialogue that deals directly with their backstory, we certainly get a sense they have a well-developed past together because of the way they interact with each other, and it’s frighteningly wonderful to watch how this situation pushes them apart and pulls them together.
This film is not a big-budget special-effects disaster movie. Although there are some special-effects, including shots of downtown LA, in the distance, partly burning and engulfed in smoke (I assume these are CGI created), the action mostly takes place in and around the suburban house. The focus is on the suspense, character, politics, and the dynamic created by the highly unusual situation.
I haven’t been able to find out what the budget was, but I suspect it was rather small, especially for a disaster movie. Films like this prove that you don’t need fancy effects to tell a disaster story—just a good narrative and good acting. To quote one of my favorite filmmakers, Chris Hansen, “Smart indie filmmakers capitalize on their limitations […and] use them to [their] advantage.” In other words, when you have a tiny budget, you play to your strengths. In this case, that means focusing on strong actors whose characters are frightened partly because they can’t see what’s going on, rather than big, awe-inspiring effects which can cost millions to create.
The bombing of LA may be a huge story that affects millions and millions of people, but this movie, thanks to budget constraints, is forced to choose to focus on just these two individuals and their personal story. And because it’s so well developed, in the end, the audience learns more from these two characters and their political and social conflicts than it would from a dozen characters running away from computer-generated spectacular catastrophe in the streets of downtown LA.
And so in this case, having a tiny budget proved to be a benefit and probably made it a better movie than if it had a multi-million budget, because then it could just be dismissed, in the long run, as another meaningless flash-in-the-pan blockbuster, completely forgotten a month after release.
“Right at Your Door” is not a perfect film. A few of sections in the middle seem a bit drawn out. And a character—a handyman played by Tony Perez—is introduced and spends some time in the house with Brad, but very little is done with him. I felt that not utilizing his presence for additional situational conflict and difference of opinion was wasted potential.
Overall, though, this is an important film filled with fears that go right to the heart of every American in the post-9/11 world. We’re forced to ask ourselves, what would I do in a situation like this? And what, of course, does that reveal about me? “Right at Your Own Door” certainly makes us look in the mirror—both as a society and as individuals. If we come up lacking, whose fault is that?
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