In his book on the Apollo 11 moon landing, “Of a Fire on the Moon,” Norman Mailer wondered whether, in addition to providing wish fulfillment, dreams might act as psychic simulation chambers “where the possible malfunctions of life tomorrow and life next year could be tested, where the alternate plans could be tried.” If movies can be said to resemble dreams of the collective unconscious, an idea suggested since the birth of the medium, then what are we to make of the current crop of films reimagining horrific terrorist attacks, panicked citizens, and draconian federal responses, films like “War of the Worlds,” “Children of Men,” and now “Right At Your Door“? Do they simply express our shared post-9/11 fear? Or are they preparing us for the worst, keeping us on our toes for another catastrophe, as if to say “Don’t get too comfortable, the potential for more 9/11s lives very much with us”?
It’s hard to say, and “Right at Your Door” never even begins to answer the questions it obviously provokes. The motivations of the film differ from big budget “thrill rides” like “War of the Worlds” and “Children of Men” in scope and spectacle–its story is told from the limited vantage point of Brad (Rory Cochrane), an out-of-work guitarist living in the suburbs who panics when he first hears reports of a dirty bomb detonated in downtown L.A. and tries to save his wife, Lexi (Mary McCormack). First-time writer-director Chris Gorak (art director on “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” “Fight Club,” and “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” among other notable titles) proves deft at keeping a terrific Cochran close to the handheld camera and in a heightened state of radio-informed distress as he spends the film’s first half hour trying to drive out to the freeway to find his wife among the thousands trapped en route to a city in chaos.
Forced by police to keep off the road, and taking the advice of authorities cautioning civilians to seal off their homes to keep out deadly, incoming airborne chemicals, Brad continues freaking out until a grand irony arrives, yes, right at his door: his wife, who he now can’t let in lest she might be “contaminated.” Brad and Lexi go through anger, guilt, determination, and a horrible twist ending as two days of waiting for help drags on. As does the film. We never learn quite enough about these characters, and the various developments that keep them occupied (a Mexican handyman who winds up sharing Brad’s safe house, a lost African-American child, mysterious military actions) lack the convincing realism of projected paranoia to make the premise truly haunting. 9/11 iconography–toxic ash, government lies, frantic and poignant phone calls–is employed, but without a solid humanistic (“War of the Worlds”) or mythic (“Children of Men”) foundation “Right at Your Door” floats in an awkward limbo state. Too dramatically weak to offer a sufficiently “small,” personal view of the kind of event typically recreated in the most technically spectacular manner, but too innately loaded with traumatic import to be simply forgettable, “Right at Your Door,” despite occasional technical precision, never solves the problem to which other cinematic interpretations of 9/11 have at the very least compromised a solution: why are we watching this?