Updated: Dec 24, 2021
“I’m the bad guy?” asks recently unemployed defence worker William Foster (Michael Douglas) bemusedly in the late stages of Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down (1993). Over the preceding ninety or so minutes, we have watched a man on the edge, losing his mind in real time. We have witnessed someone whose morally contentious actions have driven him too far over the precipice to be able to turn back. And all along the way, Foster has not considered himself the bad guy in his story. He has just wanted to get home for his daughter’s birthday, yet been blocked at every turn. As the film opens, he sits in his car, stuck in the notorious LA traffic, images flicking on and off the screen, generating palpable claustrophobia. Broken air-conditioning. Heat-seeking flies. A broken window handle. Boisterous kids on a school bus. A Garfield car toy suckered to a window, longing for freedom. He abandons his car and continues his journey on foot. Falling Down could be an uncomfortable mirror to our own existence, speaking as it does to the latent frustration we can all feel at times. Frustration that for some people, if left unchecked, could spill over into violence, as it does for Foster – known throughout most of the film as ‘D-FENS’.
Falling Down is very much a product of its decade. The rose-tinted 80s are a distant memory, laid waste by the grunge-era desolation of early 1990s LA. Accordingly, Foster finds himself fighting, literally, against a broken system – something he once benefitted from is now something that has no use for him. He is reeling from being forced into obsolescence. Thus, change for a can of soda that won’t stretch to a phone call home sends him over the edge. Wandering alone through the dangerous LA streets, he finds himself in a territorial dispute with angry, gangland youths. He later has a clash of ideologies with an angry, Neo-Nazi white supremacist. He gets into a disagreement with an angry, privileged golf course owner in a scene rather awkwardly played for laughs. As might now be clear, anger is both protagonist and antagonist in Falling Down – it is the main catalyst of Foster’s actions and the main target of his ire. His estranged wife describes him as a man with a ‘horrendous temper’ with a ‘propensity for violence’. This element – that he is a troubled man seen as a danger to his family – is intended to add an extra dimension to the character. However, knowing that Foster has a history of violence somewhat undermines how one might relate to him. It is down to the strength of Michael Douglas’ performance that Foster even begins to come across as a sympathetic character. One wonders how the film would play without feeling bound to Foster’s rather fragmentary backstory.
If there is comedy in Falling Down – and there is – it is of the blackest streak. Admittedly, there is much amusement to be had in watching what is perhaps the most famous scene in the film, as an armed Foster holds up a family-friendly burger bar because they won’t serve him breakfast. Amusing too is the scene of a young boy, thinking Foster’s vigilante actions are part of a film shoot, talking him through how to arm a rocket launcher in order to give construction workers ‘something to fix’. It would all be funny if the situation Foster finds himself in and the circumstances he creates weren’t ultimately so hopeless. There is no liberation or release in his actions, just an inevitable realisation for the audience that the point of no return for Foster has long since passed.
Foster’s fate rests with the character of Martin Prendergast, played by the incomparable Robert Duvall. He is a police sergeant who is typically, in an oft-used convention of the genre, on his last day of the job. He unwittingly gets caught up in the pursuit of the man in the white shirt and tie, with the licence plate ‘D-FENS’. Foster and Prendergast have arguably one thing in common – the need for freedom. Foster is seeking freedom from the strictures of consumerism and what he sees as the injustices of modern America, albeit through the medium of accidental vigilante justice. Prendergast is resisting his imminent freedom – a desk-bound sergeant involving himself in one final case. Heck, it’s far more exciting than retirement. Foster’s rampage comes to Prendergast’s attention, resulting in a cat-and-mouse pursuit and customary battle of wits in which Duvall’s patented wry smile and skill at playing characters of dogged and weary determination come fully into play.
For me, Falling Down is neatly summed up by the close-up image of Michael Douglas, in character, wearing glasses with a shattered lens. Fundamentally, Foster is a broken man in a broken world; a deeply flawed Everyman who has become a one-man army. Its stage is a rather dystopian LA, helped, or perhaps hindered by the fact that filming took place amidst (and was often disrupted by) the riots of 1992. Thus, it is a film that has courted its own controversies, particularly in the depiction and treatment of minorities, and its awkward melding of comedy and tragedy, that some have claimed glorifies Foster’s violent actions. Perhaps there is merit to these arguments. It is fairly apparent that the film struggles with its tone, but it is never less than engaging as a pointed satire and a none-too-subtle example of how mundanity can tip over into madness.
It’s safe to say you never quite know what to expect from a Joel Schumacher film. For every work of tenacious zeal, such as the critically and commercially lauded St. Elmo’s Fire (1985) or The Lost Boys (1987) - both darlings of the Hollywood ‘Brat Pack’ era - there are films such as the bold-but-broken 8mm (1999) and the legendarily abominable Batman & Robin (1997). Schumacher has turned his hand to everything from John Grisham legal adaptations to Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, and his filmography reads like a flamboyant ode to paranoid schizophrenia. All of this aforementioned colour is what makes Falling Down (1993) such a peculiar proposition. It straddles a line between typical Hollywood thriller and edgy, expressionistic social commentary. It is at once entertaining and engaging, yet supremely perplexing in its intent.
For all its fuzzy ambiance, Falling Down has a fundamentally simple premise: Angry man, driven to distraction by the system, violently snaps, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. Not-so-angry man - a soon-to-be-retired police officer - uses a combination of empathy and nous to gauge, find and hopefully stop the angry man. This very straightforward narrative structure is one of the film’s strengths. We join proceedings in medias res, and a combination of claustrophobic close-ups, oppressive heat and a bothersome fly (all captured amidst the stress of a merciless traffic jam) instantly establishes both the bubbling mania of William Foster (Michael Douglas) and the pragmatic resignation of Sgt. Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall). Foster abandons his car and begins a voyage of discovery destined to become a rampage, whilst Prendergast continues the seemingly quiet trudge towards premature retirement.
The juxtaposition of these two initially disparate souls plunges us straight into the heart of proceedings. These two men are, to borrow part of Henry David Thoreau’s now-infamous aphorism, living lives of quiet desperation, and the choice of one man, in attempting to directly alter his fate, impinges on the life and happiness of the other. Schumacher (as director) and writer Ebbe Rowe Smith use the William Foster character, also known (and credited) as ‘D-FENS’, to both highlight and rage against the iniquities of a broken system. The targets of Foster’s ire are deliberately familiar to the honest working man. As Foster bemoans the rising cost of snack foods and laments the cynicism of careerist begging, one cannot help but empathise with many of his observations and complaints. His willingness to seek fairness - not charity - endears him to the audience, in a fashion not dissimilar to that of the classically-browbeaten everyman.
This dynamic reaches a crescendo in the film’s most amusing scene, where a heavily armed Foster alights at a fast food restaurant seeking breakfast, only to be told he is ineligible for his chosen meal, on the grounds of having arrived three minutes after the ‘end of breakfast’. Anyone who is, like myself, a lover of the McDonald’s breakfast menu, and has at some point been tardy in their early morning pre-work arrival, will instantly feel this man’s frustration rumbling in their own dissatisfied tummies. The accuracy of this scene is further buttressed by the offer of a replacement meal, taking the form of a rancid-looking cheeseburger. Foster lambasts the disparity between the picture on the menu, and the gopping mound he holds disapprovingly in his unhappy hands, whilst railing against the scourge of fast food bureaucracy. Factor in this whole scene unfolds amidst a packed restaurant, whilst Foster is holding a loaded machine gun (which accidentally goes off in the process), and you have a hilarious, razor-sharp piece of satire on which to hang your appreciative hat. Falling Down is at its very best in scenes like this. When confining itself to the farce of everyday mundanities, it is a pointed exercise in social commentary.
Sadly, the story is taken in a more graphic and uncompromising direction, which for all its attempts at artistic and dramatic flair, doesn’t quite work. One gets the sense that the film is intended to embody the convulsive frustrations of a man out of sync with society, and during the aforementioned instances of controlled satire, the film is sufficiently cutting and relevant. Ultimately, we discover that Foster is a dangerously unhinged individual, who has bullied and emotionally tormented his own family; all the while deeming himself entitled and under-appreciated. In this moment, the film vacates any true moral standing. Anyone who has worked in a thankless vocation and experienced a particularly bad day, can empathise with the urge to suddenly strike back. On the surface, this is what Foster is doing. In truth, he is a delusional, narcissistic and essentially racist malcontent, who once he is re-enfranchised by aggression and firepower, wages war to redress the perceived imbalance. He is an individual at odds with ordered society. That, at its core, is a fascistic perspective, and whatever merit there is to this argument is not appropriately considered, as the film succumbs to the inconsistencies in its tone. Foster moves jarringly from polite protagonist to coercive antagonist, and back again, with unsettling results.
Every problem is apparently best resolved with guns or a fist, and though the film shies away from portraying Foster as irredeemably murderous, the line is pretty bloody thin. The fate of the old fool on the golf course is a vintage slice of schadenfreude, and the lesson in correct rocket launcher usage, as provided by a young boy, is darkly comical. However, from a strictly moral perspective, these scenes are rather dubious; even when shielded by satire. Foster has been ‘wronged’, but his response is unyielding, and arguably not proportionate to the ‘crimes’ committed against him, making his actions harder to justify. Granted, the film does attempt to texturise Foster’s broader motivations beyond twisted familial longing and mere frustration. In his one truly homicidal aside, he decries the bigotry and overt racism of the Nazi-worshipping army surplus owner, but then Schumacher undertakes a bizarre flight of fancy, and bombards the screen with nazi iconography and images of Hitler, as if driving Foster into a further frenzy. Schumacher, by his own admission, employs this technique on a regular basis. Frankly, it is as clumsy as it is pointless; a crass shock tactic, serving little or no purpose. Ditto the scenes with Foster having a little weep at some old home videos, as the erstwhile family labrador sidles up for a cuddle. All of the above is as subtle as a red-hot poker to the jacksie.
In the wrong hands, Falling Down could’ve been viewed as a right-wing recruitment piece. What begins as a biting (and pertinent) satire occasionally degenerates into something akin to Rambo for the urban environment. Despite its wildly inconsistent tone, the film manages to be repeatedly entertaining and at times, assuredly profound. This is entirely down to the central performances. Michael Douglas is utterly marvellous in the role of Foster, and almost all the sympathy we hold for the character is a result of Douglas’ class and control. He takes a character that lurches from orchestral grace to one-note uncertainty, and writes an enduring symphony. Robert Duvall is equally capable as Prendergast, painting a vivid portrait of a repressed and quietly intense man, who perceives the coming of a threat, and acts accordingly. The film treats the relationship between the two characters in symbiotic terms, with the fall of one - Foster - signifying the renewal of the other (Prendergast). Their fates are inevitably intertwined, and the film holds the face-to-face meeting between the two as both an admission of guilt, and something of a requiem to the myriad lives lost in pursuit of the so-called American dream.
Falling Down veers wildly from the utterly worthwhile to intellectually self-indulgent. At times, it is dry, sardonic and almost bone-shakingly pointed in its observations. In other moments, it is an overly macho celebration of resolving one’s own problems with (mostly unjustified) aggression. You certainly can’t accuse the film of being boring though, and owing to the highest peaks of its humour, it can be fairly classified as a guilty pleasure. Just don’t take the film as seriously as it longs to take itself, because when considered as a both a concept and story, it is - and to use one of this writer’s personal favourite idioms - close, but no cigar.