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Mary McCormack stars in "Right at Your Door."
THE LOW BUDGET indie film "Right at Your Door" features a major disaster -- the explosion of dirty bombs in downtown Los Angeles at LAX airport -- but it's not exactly a doomsday movie. As was true on 9/11, a major city isn't destroyed. It's just altered forever. Repercussions are coming, but no one knows quite what they'll be.

Writer/director Chris Gorak focuses his story on a lone married couple. Unemployed musician Brad (Rory Cochrane) gets up one hazy Los Angeles morning, makes a perfect espresso for his wife, Lexi (Mary McCormack), and then waves her off to work.

His plans for an idle day of doing errands and hanging out are quickly shattered by the news of multiple explosions downtown, where Lexi works. Everyone is ordered to stay home, seal their windows and doors and wait out the crisis.

Brad would like to be the powerful rescuer, but he believes what he hears from the radio and the cops he encounters in their neighborhood. Instead of pushing his way into the epicenter of the crisis, Bruce Willis-style, he does what he's told. He goes home and seals himself inside the house. Then Lexi arrives, vomiting, bruised, her clothes tattered, and asks him to open the door.

From what Brad has picked up from the radio, he shouldn't. She's contaminated. If he lets her in, he'll be contaminated too. Talk about a scene from a marriage.

Gorak has given us a few early clues into Brad and Lexi's life together, so we know they love each other. But there seems to be some resentment on both sides about the fact that Lexi is the breadwinner. He'd like her to praise his cooking more (Cochrane, who played the ultimate stoner in "Dazed and Confused," expertly conveys Brad's whiny insecurity). Lexi doesn't feel like building up his ego. And so on.

The film impresses through its sheer economy. Imagine yourself in writer-director Gorak's shoes. He's a former production designer and art director who's worked on slick movies like "Minority Report" and "Fight Club," and now he's making his first feature film. He has no budget to speak of, but he's thinking big, trying to create an event so big the radio and television would be nattering 24/7 about it.

Radio is easy to fake, right? But TV images would involve expensive special effects. So Gorak has his story begin two weeks after Lexi and Brad have moved into a new house. Since the cable guy hasn't come yet, they have no TV reception. Gorak's solution isn't just a budget saver, it's an improvement to the film. Being cut off from images of the outside world makes the whole thing that much more spooky and tense.

Then all he needs are easy effects: billowing clouds of beige and brown smoke over the Los Angeles' downtown district, a helicopter in its midst and then, finally, the ash falling from the sky like filthy snow. The Michael Bays of the world should take note: While minimal, these simple images are absolutely effective. We do believe Lexi and Brad's world has fallen apart.

Because their story is told in relative isolation, we don't need to know what happens to everyone in Los Angeles, although our hunch is that none of it will be good. But we do want to know what happens to the couple. No spoiler, but suffice it to say, Gorak gives his last chapter a twist. His intent to send us home still mulling is good and right, but the means with which he arrives at it is somewhat suspect, and it's ultimately too neat, too easy.

That's not to take away from all he's done up until then. The exploration of the impact of paranoia on Brad and Lexi's life is interesting enough. But Gorak succeeds in raising larger issues about societal paranoia, and the dangers of being too obedient and trusting of the powers that be. One of the film's saddest sights is that of Brad, frantically dialing 911, even though it's patently clear there is no point whatsoever.

Reach Mary F. Pols at mpols@bayareanewsgroup.com or 925-945-4741.

"RIGHT AT YOUR DOOR"

B+

Starring: Mary McCormack, Rory Cochrane

Director: Chris Gorak

Rated: R for pervasive language and some disturbing violent content

Opens today: Shattuck, Berkeley; Kabuki, SF

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes