A fitfully taut but fatally underwritten thriller about an affluent white family and the undocumented El Salvadorian housekeepers they decide to shelter — or imprison? — in their dungeon-like basement for days on end as ICE raids sweep through Los Angeles, Augustus Meleo Bernstein’s “At the Gates” seems determined to offer a claustrophobic American twist on “Parasite.” Absent the opulent style and satirical fury that made Bong Joon Ho’s film such a cross-cultural watershed, however, this similarly genre-inflected caricature of socioeconomic inequality turns instead to the looming specter of deportation — and the Holocaust allusions built into its premise — to embellish a story that unfolds across our country on a regular basis. 

While that trade-off proves understandable given the stakes at play here, it’s not a trade-off this half-baked exercise in single-location suspense can afford to make. “At the Gates” convincingly argues that self-involved U.S. citizens are blind or indifferent to the uncertainty that haunts so many of the immigrants who come here in search of a better life, even — and perhaps especially — when they rely on those people as indispensable workers and adopt them into their own homes “like members of the family.” But clever as it is to examine that insidious dynamic through the magnifying glass of a home invasion thriller, Bernstein’s debut is at once both too grounded to be so broad, and too heightened to honor the tragic reality of its circumstances.

Both of those problems stem from the conceit at the heart of this story, which needs to be believable enough that some characters go along with it, but also strange enough that others are immediately suspicious. Ana (Vanessa Benavente) has been commuting to the Barris family’s Hancock Park-adjacent house for eight months, and she’s convinced herself that America will eventually reward her for her hard work. Her teenage son Nico would seem to be living proof of that, especially now that he’s college-bound thanks to the protections granted to him by the DACA program (he’s played to steely perfection by Mexican-born newcomer Ezekiel Pacheco, a DACA recipient himself). 

Marianne Barris (a snooty but fragile Miranda Otto) agrees to let Nico assist his mom for the summer, but their very first day on the job together is interrupted by a visit from ICE, who seem to know exactly who they’re looking for. After convincing the agents that the help didn’t show up for work that day, Marianne suggests — perhaps too eagerly — that Ana and her son stay at the house until things blow over, an offer that her mega-stressed lawyer husband (Noah Wyle as Peter) complicates by insisting that his guests spend their daylight hours confined to a room in the basement that only locks from the outside. With her faith so invested in the moral framework of modern America, Ana all but likens their situation to that of the Jews who were sheltered from the Nazis during World War II. Nico would probably sooner compare it to “Get Out.” 

“At the Gates” draws the vast majority of its tension from the back-and-forth between those two points of view, both of which hinge on a power imbalance that puts Nico and his mom at the mercy of their employers. On the one hand, it seems generous of Marianne to lie to the government and offer her house as a sanctuary, even if she and her husband are risking a slap on the wrist to save their guests from a much greater punishment.

On the other hand, the offer seems rather uncharacteristic of someone who’s basically a human cartoon of white privilege; who eyeballs the tattoo on Nico’s neck as if it were evidence he belonged to MS-13, and — in the cringiest moment of a movie that has a few big ones to choose from — suggests that El Salvador is part of Mexico. Maybe she’s just seizing on the chance to show her own kids that help can be as dehumanizing as hatred when performed with a certain flair, but Bernstein’s script wants us to entertain the idea that something more outlandishly sinister is happening behind the scenes or under the surface.

And maybe there is. But with every new detail that Bernstein reveals, his film begs that much harder for a more figurative approach. “At the Gates” often aligns itself with Nico’s POV, which means that it’s largely deprived of access to the world beyond the Barris’ house. We only see characters when they’re home, and — for the most part — we only know whatever Nico knows about them. Strictly adhering to that conceit might have allowed the film to generate more suspense from its low-key mysteries (why is Peter so neurotic about people going into his office?), and mine a visceral discomfort from Nico’s immigrant experience of being treated like an invited guest and a dangerous intruder at the same time, but “At the Gates” inexplicably thinks of its suspense as a means to an end instead of an end unto itself. That translates into repetitive scenes of Nico skulking around the house, only to make shocking discoveries like… the fact that Peter is diabetic.

The time this movie spends on the build-up flattens its characters into archetypes that render the whole scenario less believable, and there simply isn’t enough detail or momentum to Bernstein’s script for it to convince us that things are spiraling out of control. “At the Gates” seems painfully locked outside of its own potential, as the film squints at a handful of compelling ideas from a distance — namely Marianne being tripped up by their own performative goodness and Peter being way more stressed out by white-collar bullshit than Ana and Nico are by a situation that might ruin their entire lives — only to forfeit every chance at a closer look. That remove feels like an outgrowth of Bernstein’s austere direction, which often mistakes emptiness for Haneke-like detachment. 

There’s just not enough going on to fill out some of these shots, let alone the story they’re meant to serve. Nico’s flirtation with the Barris’ teenage daughter seems poised to be the exception to that rule, especially once her initial discomfort gives way to an ambiguously motivated desire, but “At the Gates” is too afraid of breaking its tension to actually do anything with it. Even the relationship between Nico and Ana is left to languish, despite raw and lived-in performances from the actors playing them. The material isn’t there to support them (least of all during the film’s whimper of an ending), but sometimes that’s just how it goes in a cruel and broken world whose only hope lies in people making bold personal choices — even when it seems like none are available to them.

Grade: C

“At the Gates” is now playing in theaters.

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