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The Unknown Terrorist
by Richard Flanagan
(Discounted Hardcover from Amazon)
"Right At Your Door"
This low budget disaster film suffers from more than the virtual suffocation of its characters. The deeper problem is its inability to raise a level of sympathy for them sufficient enough to live the agonies of unpreparedness following a mssive terrorist bombing in downtown Los Angeles.
Living in a Hollywood Hills house with a view of the downtown skyline, the day starting like many another, Brad (Rory Cochrane) prepares a latte for wife Lexi (Mary McCormack, "1408") as part of his waking-her-up-for-work ritual. A few pleasantries later, she takes off while he faces another day of self-absorption around a TV set.
But this morning at home or on TV is not to be like any other. With suddenness and alarm, the TV news blares with frantic reports that a series of large bomgs have been going off in downtown L.A. The city has been targetted by as yet unknown terrorists causing death, destruction, and transportation paralysis. The city is going to lockdown mode.
No one knows who's behind it, nor what to do about it.
Brad has no doubts about what he has to do. After getting no response from Lexi's cell phone, he takes off in the family auto in an attempt to find her and bring her home to safety. But roads are closing and, after seeing a cop gun down a rebellious man, he accepts that he must return home to continue his attempts to reach Lexi and do what he can from there.
He leaves to pick up supplies and is curious about a woman scooping up rolls of duct tape. When he discovers that it's because at least one of the bombs was a dirty one and is releasing a toxic chemical that is being spread by the winds all over the city and that the authorities are advising people to stay home and seal all windows and doors, he buys plastic sheeting and a load of tape, as well.
As he begins the sealing process he realizes that someone is the house with him... an older, latino man... the neihbor's gardener. Put out by this unwelcome stranger, there is at least two, now, to seal the place up and they get briskly to work.
About the time they finish, Lexi returns, covered in ashy fallout and with a hacking cough. But if Brad lets her in he will come in contact with her and die. When she realizes he won't allow her entrance into their own home, she goes berserk. But it last onlyh so long and she realizes the wisdom of his choice.
Together, on opposite sides of the window glass and/or plastic sheeting, they listen for official emergency solutions to the problem but the news makes it apparent that no one know how to deal with the catastrophe. All advice rings hollow, making it apparent that they're on their own and best off trusting no one.
But, then, a trained military unit in bio-hazard gear pays a visit in the middle of the night. And, just when we want to see in improvement in the situation and a turnaround in Lexi and Brad's fate, perhaps going into an aftermath mode, we realize the happy ending may not be what's in store.
The effect, though, is distant. The fear and desperation is at a remove as we observe developments. There's something about McCormack and Cochrane, who are in almost every frame, that isn't working and it may be because these actors haven't enough natural charisma or improv experience to deliver the loosely written flip out moments with some appeal to our sympathetic understanding. They emote aplenty, but these actors are too limited to improve on the printed script page and turn in one-dimensional horror movie cutouts. We need them to pull us into that infected house. They are too tiring to manage it.
Shot on super 16mm film, the picture quality is slightly better than high-end cell phone camera. The lack of deep blacks give it a grayness that could be represented as a fitting choice given the subject matter but is more likely to be the result of low budget limitation (despite what director Gorak describes as "a nice gritty textured feel," which clearly is low-budget compensation speak.
The claustrophobic production has a few things it can boast about. The musical by tomandandy [sic] score came out well, highlighting the emotional states with apropriate and creative beats of rhythmic tension.
The film's primary virtue, despite all the negative points made about it previously, stems from writer-director Chris Gorak's imaginative study of his simple kernel of story. It's evident that he wrote hard and long to come up with every possibility and permutation of the central event of a terrorist attack on a major American city. Providing subplot and insightful detail, there are: a lone boy drifting aimlessly outside; the gardener finding refuge in a strange house -- Brad's -- contributing to its salvation; chaotic but likely broadcasts that try to inform but actually confuse and anger the affected populace; decisions made out of desperation; the frantic mother-in-law; last words between a couple who assume one of them is about to die, and much more.
There is really no stone unturned in the thoughtfulness of Gorak's anticipation of an attack's rippling effects on a city and its citizens, and his film doesn't lack for pace and progression. If only he had made his characters more engaging he might have commanded a suspense level worthy of an Armageddon.
~~ Jules Brenner