Right at Your Door

The crisis in “Right at Your Door,” about a chemical weapon attack on Los Angeles, is the same as in all those zombie movies: What do you do when a loved one becomes infected?

This small-cast, high-intensity thriller begins with a series of “dirty bombs” being detonated at the height of the morning commute. Brad (Rory Cochrane), a young husband and new homeowner, is horrified to realize his wife Lexi (Mary McCormack) was probably near ground zero at the time of the explosions and may have been contaminated, if not blown up altogether. In the film’s opening act — which reminds me of TV’s “24” at its adrenaline-pumping best — Brad races toward downtown to look for his wife but is thwarted by police roadblocks and other impediments.

It gets worse for him. Not only must he go home and simply wait, agonizingly, for Lexi to call or show up, but the order soon comes over that everyone must seal off their doors and windows to avoid contact with the toxic ash, which is spreading all over the city. Brad realizes all too well that sealing himself in means that when — if — Lexi does make it home, she will be sealed out.

Chris Gorak, a Hollywood art director making his debut as a screenwriter and filmmaker, introduces a tantalizing question: What would YOU do if you were Brad? If you let Lexi in the house, you expose yourself and you both die. If you keep her out, only she dies. Maybe that one’s too easy to answer — true love, better to die with your spouse than live without her, etc. — so Gorak adds another element. Alvaro (Tony Perez), a middle-aged handyman working on the house next door, has joined Brad in the safety of his home. Now if Brad lets Lexi in, Alvaro becomes a victim, too. Not so easy anymore, is it?

I say it would have been a more excruciating dilemma if Lexi and Brad had children in the house rather than some stranger, but maybe that’s intentional. Maybe Gorak wants there to be some ambiguity in Brad’s actions, for part of the audience to agree with his decision to lock Lexi out while part of the audience thinks he’s a jerk. There was certainly a divide in the way Sundance audiences responded to him.

After that high-octane opening sequence, the film settles into a tense but calm groove as the massive repercussions of the terrorist attack are condensed into a small, personal story. The movie isn’t about how the city deals with the crisis, but how Brad and Lexi deal with it. You know how the bloated Hollywood disaster flicks always claim to be about the characters? “Right at Your Door” actually is.

The problem when your movie rests on two characters is that those two actors have to be at their best for it to work. Rory Cochrane’s performance is believably distressed, but I think Mary McCormack oversells Lexi’s anger and frustration. I found myself thinking Lexi was irrational and even a little stupid — which, again, might have been part of Gorak’s plan of divided audience response.

In that regard, I find the film similar to “Open Water,” a low-budget indie film in which a pair of scuba divers are accidentally left behind out at sea. Both films have a husband and wife alone in a crisis, and in both cases, the wife got on my nerves after a while and I wanted her to be eaten by a shark. That doesn’t happen in “Right at Your Door,” though I will say that there are some events in the last act that you won’t see coming. Not since the Jehovah’s Witnesses came by has opening the front door seemed so terrifying.

B (1 hr., 30 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, a little violence.)