Fantasia Dispatch -- Right At Your Door
[It has been over a week since I returned from Fantasia, but a few films caught in the flood of genre cinema goodness have continued to occupy some headspace. Not the least of which is Chris Gorak's urban apocalypse drama which blends intimacy and FUD in equal proportions.]
Relationships between family, friends or a significant other are typically done poorly (or completely ignored) in those big money blockbusters featuring an apocalypse of one kind or another which destroys swathes of urban infrastructure to the tune of millions of dollars of computer graphics. While the recent (mighty fine) 28 Weeks Later… took great pains to integrate 'the family relationship' into the gears of its thematic gristmill, some of those elements were overpowered in the stylistic brouhaha of that film. Perhaps it is a slight irony that an art director of lush, visual films such as Fight Club and The Hudsucker Proxy woudl be the one to take a sparse, tight and emotional approach to the genre. Sure, it is more likely the tiny budget played more of a factor here, but that does not change the fact that Right At Your Door is damn effective at what it does.
The story is simple. After making coffee for his girlfriend Lexi and sending her off to her office job, Brad, an out-of-work musician listens to the news to discover that several bombs have been dropped on downtown LA. A quick look out his window confirms that this is no hoax. After an abortive attempt to get through the chaotic streets and find Lexi, Brad returns home and follows the media recommendation of sealing up the house. The 'dirty' bombs are believed to have toxic chemicals and such and the ash-cloud from the urban detonation is not far away. A handyman (who works for the neighbors) helps Brad seal up the vents, windows and door frames with plastic and duct tape. Because he is unable to get across town to his family, he stays. Things get complicated when Lexi returns back to the house coughing up a storm while wading through the ash cloud. The media warns again and again that anyone exposed to the falling ash is contagious and should be quarantined until medical professionals arrive. Brad makes the very difficult decision (it should be noted the opposite decision of the Nostromo crew and kids of 28 Weeks Later…) to maintain the quarantine and keeps his wife on the other side of the plastic. Police, military and rescue workers roam the environment as confused and vaguely menacing specters while Lexi and Brad deal with the very real possibility that Lexi is going to die of toxic exposure.
Right at Your Door is both a description of the film and a glove tossing challenge to the viewer. The dangers are a stew of modern disasters which have affected millions including 9/11, the big blackout in 2004 and the SARS scare. Everyone has seen the CNN coverage of these events and how the panic of the unknown spreads faster than the truth. There is a significant screenplay decision from Gorak to have Brad and Lexi just moving into their LA bungalow on the outskirts of downtown. This allows for the cable not to be hooked up yet. It keeps the films focus on character communication and does not have them sitting and watching TV (which most people would be doing in that situation). Recurring shots of tinned goods, bottled water, plastic wrap and duct tape are apt enough metaphors for what Homeland Security means by the time it is filtered down to the individual trapped in their home. And individual clearly have no power to do a damn thing (other than look out for their own as best they can) in these situations. A visually effective scene of a character giving himself a fear induced bleach baptism cries out as angrily a welcome as any to the culture of fear of the new millennium.
The title is clever in that it is a literal description of the situation, but serves up the question of "What would you do?" Likely while watching the film many will be mentally playing their own version of how one would handle the situation. It makes the film cut even sharper because in a way, it is very much an interactive film. A conversation stimulator (it is a great date film for those who are spoiling for a relationship argument afterwards), Brad and Lexi's decisions (and whether or not you agree with them) will likely make or break the whether the audience finds the film entertaining. Controversial decision making at the most individual (or couple) level is at the heart of Right At Your Door in a way that echoes Anthony Edwards plight in the under seen 80s cold-war shaped paranoid thriller Miracle Mile. Consider this the post-911 update while subtracting the sugary love story and adding much more real couples dialogue. Although 70 years on, North America is a lot more media savvy, but there is a strain of paranoia which taps the same vein as Orson Welles' War of the World radio broadcasts. The performances from Rory Cochrane and Mary McCormak, combined with level realistic dialogue, go a long way cover over qualms about how 'real' or how 'movie' the situation unfolds. Other than some opening scenes, the film is in essence a 'one room' film which emphasizes character and situation over thrill-ride. There has certainly been a spate of these types of pictures this year including Vacancy and Bug and 1408. Right At Your Door is best of show for giving the screen real people instead of dramatic devices.
There is a second layer to the film, the constant babble of reportage going on in the background. From the panicked opening strains of a disaster unfolding in real time and confusing reporters checking in via cellular phone to the elasticized and mundane point three days where there just is not enough information or news to justify constant updates and the chatter devolves into buzzing white noise. This background element feels authentic in a way that it is simply there, not satirical or paranoid or showy. It adds to the tension of the film in a way that the distracting techno score struggles to do at times. That and a thematically sound yet too abrupt ending are slightly weaknesses to an otherwise masterful piece of duck-and-cover cinema.
Right At Your Door is clear proof of how to make a gripping and visceral experience. A good screenplay, savvy close-up cinematography and top shelf performances from all involved (including the many actors only heard via the radio broadcasts) add up to a decidedly rich and offbeat disaster movie. The urban apocalypse film is rapidly amassing enough entries to construct a tidy sub-genre and Chris Gorak's directorial debut deserves to be sitting near the top of the pile.
Trailer (Embedded Flash)
[A trivial post-script: Watch and appreciate the sliding-type opening credits for the film which reminded me of the similar stellar opening credits of Nimród Antal's Vacancy (as mentioned above, another single location thriller which puts a couples relationship through the ringer]