Janus Film Review Presents: Falling Down (1993)

as reviewed by Tom.

Format reviewed: DVD/Warner Home Video (2006).

“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. 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.

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