The image of ash falling from the sky is immediately arresting; the quiet terror it evokes, inherent and inescapable. Writer-director Chris Gorak doesn’t deserve any credit for that. He does, however, deserve credit for trusting that such quiet terror will be enough to give his thriller, Right at Your Door, the tension it needs to hold our nerves taut for ninety-six minutes. Someone else might have thrown in screaming crowds, explosions, and crashing cars, but such standard action material could have been brushed away. The ash—along with distant plumes of black smoke and a few dead birds—lingers in the mind, a signifier of once-unimaginable horror we now conjure up all too easily and vividly.
Right at Your Door plays on those fears, but it’s not cheap. It deserves credit for that, for sidestepping exploitation in favor of something more thoughtful and emotionally true, but I can’t say I enjoyed it, exactly. It feels like a cautionary tale, vaguely pedantic, earnestly warning me about dangers I acknowledge but on which I don’t want to dwell.
The danger, specifically, is the dirty bomb. Rory Cochrane and Mary McCormack play Brad and Lexi, a young married couple who have just moved into a new home in the suburbs of Los Angeles. One morning, after Lexi drives off to work, Brad hears radio reports from the city: a series of bombs have detonated throughout the city, all releasing mysterious contaminants into the air. Brad tries and fails to reach Lexi, and when she fails to return, he reluctantly follows the radio’s instructions and seals himself into their home. But then Lexi does return, covered in ash, wheezing and coughing and retching, and Brad must decide what to do.
Gorak avoids politics. Right at Your Door isn’t about who set off the bombs or where they got the toxins or even what those toxins are. Its concerns are more narrow, more intimate: the tension between self-sacrifice and self-preservation, the agonizing process of coming to terms with one’s own mortality and the mortality of those one loves.
The movie is well-made and well-paced, but I always felt as though as the seams were showing. I could see plot elements clicking into place to set up the next point; it felt constructed rather than organic. And yet, paradoxically, the narrative is also packed with first-act guns that never fire. It hints at intriguing turns—a shortage of water, intimations of Lexi’s infidelity, conflict between Brad and a man who seeks shelter in their home—but leaves them hanging when the plot clanks forward.
Part of the problem might be McCormack’s performance, which never makes sense to me. Despair and desperation would be perfectly natural, but Lexi just seems unhinged. She is so manic—preternaturally calm one instant, practically rabid the next—that at one point I wondered whether the film was preparing to introduce vicious 28 Days Later–esque zombies. Cochrane, by contrast, delivers a beautiful performance, emotionally raw and as layered as an onion. McCormack has her moments (the phone conversations with her mother and brother are particularly affecting), but she never matches Cochrane.
Taking a step back, though, I realize I’m being too hard on Right at Your Door: it’s not a bad movie. To the contrary, it’s smart and tense, and the climax is shattering. I admire Gorak’s restraint at holding the audience in the dark with the characters, and I appreciate the telling, precise details he uses to create Brad and Lexi’s relationship.
Yet if the movie hadn’t been so promising, it wouldn’t have been so disappointing. The unrealized potential is what left me frustrated. But maybe I’m thinking about this backward. After all, this was Gorak’s very first effort as a writer-director. (Previously he worked as an art director and production designer on other films.) And though this effort didn’t quite work for me, I’ll perk up my ears when I hear about his next movie. Despite its flaws, Right at Your Door is undeniably a promising debut, and even if it doesn’t deliver on that promise, Gorak’s next movie might.