The biggest influence on Right at Your Door was Jaws. I always envisioned the dust cloud of the disaster as the shark fin circling the two characters marooned at sea.
— Chris Gorak (IndieWire 20 August 2007)
I thought duct tape was stupid.
— Lexi (Mary McCormack)
The day begins like any other for newlyweds Lexi (Mary McCormack) and Brad (Rory Cochrane). When she wakes, looking groggy, he hands her coffee in bed, then turns on the shower for her. She heads to work in a suit and heels (and without her cell phone, which she forgot to charge overnight). He’s staying home, assuring her that he’s “got some calls to make.” A musician, he’s looking for work, while she’s plainly ambitious and anxious: each resents the other just a little (“Mind getting my dry cleaning?” she asks). Their house is filled with labeled boxes (“dishes,” “photo frames candlesticks”). She promises to unpack the bedroom stuff when she gets home.
Minutes after Lexi’s gone, however, everything changes. Right at Your Door launches into action with a radio sputter. Brad hears that a series of dirty bombs have gone off in downtown Los Angeles, and everyone is in a panic (“The level of tension in the crowd is immense!”). Standing at the sink, Brad doesn’t think too hard before he decides to head into town to find Lexi. Bad idea, of course. The chaos he discovers — cars careening, people crying, cops and other official-looking men instructing everyone to get off the streets — is pretty much what you’d expect if you’ve seen 24. Brad watches the cops shoot a man who refuses to get back in his car, the frame lurching and too close to suggest his utter terror. He’s got nowhere to go. He goes home.
Here, where most of the rest of the film will take place, the shot compositions are almost unbearably close and confused. (You might think of Right at Your Door as a more immediate Signs or a less jerry-rigged Bug.) Brad fumbles around alone for a while, and then is faced with a counterpart, the neighbors’ “handyman,” Alvaro (Tony Perez), who pleads with Brad for shelter. Instructed by the radio to hunker down, the two men use duct tape and plastic to seal the house and so ensure a kind of abstract “safety” in the midst of complete and obvious social meltdown. For whatever reason, Brad’s drawers are filled with duct tape and plastic, soon applied to every window and door in sight.
It’s not a surprise, though it is unlikely, that almost as soon as the men have done their work, Lexi stumbles up to the doorstep, bedraggled, horrified, and coughing. She demands and pleads to be let into her own house, but Brad thinks he knows better, that he understands the risk, based on hours’ worth of radio warnings and the ashy deposits descending from the all too gray sky. “You’re just gonna leave me out in it?” she gasps. “Here I am!” The house must remain sealed, he says, “The shit’s airborne.” Besides, he has Alvaro inside with him, so it’s not just a selfish decision.
Lexi’s plight is at the center of the film’s wrestling with post-9/11 fear, ignorance, and helplessness. While the logic Brad asserts seems right, he and Lexi both abhor it, as it argues against all the vows and values they would seem to have made, their commitments to one another made meaningless by disaster. “I’m not locking you out,” he cries. “I love you, you know that.” Lexi and Brad confront a hard fact, that, indeed, 911 is a tragic joke. There’s no coping with such catastrophe. And Alvaro is the wrench and the reality in their situation: he is the literal “other” who makes these affluent white folks think through their place in the world (whatever that world may be now). Alvaro instructs Brad in moral behavior (he should be careful of his wife, he needs to think of her, as well as other members of his family who may be trying to call on the phone he refuses to answer), and also models good behavior, in his own devotion to his wife, left back at his home, unreachable by phone, an unseen ideal.
The film doesn’t stop with Alvaro, however. It adds in (piles on?) some other others, including a young black boy named Timmy (Scotty Noyd Jr.), whom Brad discovers wandering in the street in the morning, and who shows up again after Lexi comes home, a prisoner of the outside with her. His mom’s at work, he’s alone, he’s adorable and vulnerable (“I was scared to go home”), and so he occasions ethical and emotional lessons for Lexi. And Brad watches her learn, from his powerless spectator’s position inside the house. His frustrations are reduced to a rant or two, suggesting he’s more than aware of the baggage he’s accepted previously:
The very special and important people in charge of this disaster said that it was okay. In fact they phoned today and said, “Sorry to interrupt your busy fucking day, but in case you were wondering if your wife could take a nice hot shower, she can because the water is safe, there’s no toxins in it.” They also said that boys like Timmy, in general — of course, you have to leave it up to interpretation what general means — that boys like Timmy are immune too, because they have built-in antibiotics.
While Brad fumes in his tight shots, Lexi is mobile, and aided in her education by a coworker, Rick (Jon Huertas), who conveniently happens by and makes Brad worry that she’s hanging out with someone she once called “a scumbag.” The points about casual racism and Brad’s irrational jealousy are not subtle. But the film, for all its clunks and strains, is nonetheless effective. Urgent and angry, it indicts blithely uninformed citizens, but more strenuously, it takes aim at those “authorities” who don’t know what the hell they’re doing.