Right At Your Door begins with a sprawling disaster: Dirty bombs are set off in downtown Los Angeles, the air becomes toxic, and those safe inside houses must seal them off with plastic and duct tape while those outside can only hang tight and wait for further instructions. In a nation that’s lived through 9/11 — which director Chris Gorak says is one of the inspirations for the film — the scope of the chaos is all too familiar. There’s an iconic skyline encircled in clouds of smoke (stock footage of Kuwaiti oil fires, says Gorek), ash falling from the sky, panicked drivers trying to find their loved ones, and so on.
Yet Gorak manages to wring the maximum amount of fright out of this situation not by how large the disaster looms, but how small he makes it. His film centers on a newlywed couple: Brad (Rory Cochrane) and Lexi (Mary McCormack). When the bombs detonate, Lexi is on her way downtown, leaving Brad in the home they haven’t yet finished unpacking. He waits for Lexi to emerge from the wreckage until the neighbor’s handyman Alvaro (Tony Perez) begs him to seal up the house for both of their sakes. Brad obliges, and then Lexi returns, only to find that they’ve locked her out — and won’t let her back in, for fear of contamination.
That’s the central conflict for the whole film. In a disaster that’s presumably affected the 13 million residents of Los Angeles, Gorak zeroes in with a laser-pointed sight on just two people and the one big question they must face: Should Brad open the door?
We’re with Brad for the whole film, watching from his point of view — a limited one that only gets smaller as the events go on. Heroically, Brad tries to drive into the chaos to save Lexi when he can’t get ahold of her on the cell phone. From his neighborhood in Echo Park, he can see downtown Los Angeles, along with neighbors rushing into the hardware store and trying to locate loved ones.
Quickly, though, the local police shut down streets one-by-one and corral people into their houses — sometimes violently — and Brad returns home, where he’s marooned for the rest of the film. It’s established in one of the earliest scenes that the couple has not yet set up the cable in the house; the only source of information comes from the radio. (Gorak explains that, in addition to the shooting script, he wrote a separate 55-page script of radio dialogue, which he mixes in and out of the main action as it is necessary.) Even the house starts to close in on him, as throughout the movie he has to seal off certain rooms once they become contaminated.
Then again, there are hints that Brad is imprisoned in the house even before the disaster. In the opening, it’s made clear that Lexi and Brad live counter to traditional gender roles. They wake up in the morning, and he fixes her coffee and runs the shower for her while she dresses in a suit and heads to a high-stress job downtown. His profession — a musician, so not totally emasculating — allows him to work from home. Still, on her way out, she asks him with a little bit of edge in her voice if he would mind picking up her dry cleaning.
It’s these roles that get frozen and magnified through the looming tragedy, and so the major question of the film seems to shift: Who is the one that’s really trapped in this situation? Is Lexi locked out of the house, or is Brad locked in it?
After the film, there are weighty clues as to these answers, but none that Gorak addresses in the film’s special features, which include a commentary track and one long interview broken into different segments that covers much of the same information. Instead, he focuses on the nitty-gritty of the film’s production: the sound design, the location scouting, the casting, the extra radio script, and so on. One particularly interesting extra, however, features the script pages for two of the three alternate endings that add some perspective to Brad’s sorry plight.
While Brad has to deal with his diminishing sphere of influence, Lexi undergoes her own journey outside the house — one that’s not as compelling nor as believable as Brad’s. Upon discovering that she’s been exposed to toxins and thus denied access to her home (while the handyman is safe inside, no less), Lexi’s reaction is sheer selfishness. She starts shrieking and running around the house trying to find an unlocked door, apparently callous to the fact that her entry would be a death sentence to Brad and Alvaro. Her reaction to this: “You’d want to live without me?” she asks, obviously annoyed. (Brad’s not without his selfish moments, either, as in one part where he tells Alvaro to “stop sucking my oxygen and get out of my house.”)
Eventually, though, her thoughts turn outward, but in an illogical order. She helps strangers evade the police and army — who, in full hazmat suits, look truly alien and quite horrifying — and leads them to try and find medicine. Only after aiding these strangers does she consider her family, calling her brother and finally telling Brad, “I’m glad you’re safe.” In this way, she is the opposite of Brad, at first longing for her own safety before appreciating his, while he risked himself to drive downtown to save her.
Yet the one thing that Gorak makes absolutely clear in that, for all of the talking and painful back-and-forth between Brad and Lexi, neither of them were ever truly safe — and, at any given moment, neither are we.