What if, one day, you acted on the impulse to just get out of your gridlocked car and walk away, abandoning the daily grind to just go home? Joel Schumacher’s 1993 Falling Down takes that premise and runs with it to its worst possible conclusion. Michael Douglas plays William “D-Fens” Foster, an out-of-work defense engineer, recently divorced and slapped with a restraining order from his wife (Barbara Hershey), and very much over the edge. First fed up with a traffic jam, his dissatisfaction with the ways of the world and his determination to recapture the once idyllic family life grow to extreme proportions with truly irreversible effects.
Falling Down is probably most commented on as an “LA movie” (it’s featured prominently in the excellent LA Plays Itself. And it is. The burnt-out haze, the sprawl, the goddamn traffic jams – they’re all there. As an Angeleno, it’s tempting to see the film through this light, but when considered in a broader context, the truth is that this city just happens to be where the movie is shot. Although it takes advantage of the realities of the place, but it isn’t ABOUT Los Angeles. Falling Down is about the hardness of the modern world in general. As D-Fens murderously rampages through the Southland, the film doesn’t linger on any LA-specific landmarks, instead traversing the territory of the every day of anywhere in urban America, taking place mostly in bodegas, fast food burger joints, and pedestrian byways. Even the climactic scene on the Venice pier lacks the pomp and circumstance that other modern era LA movies throw at similar locations (i.e. the Century City high-rise office complex of Die Hard). The geography of an urban environment is important to Falling Down’s end game, and Schumacher plays D-Fens’ journey realistically, but ultimately the specific city is of no special importance.
Similarly, despite the specificity devoted to the character, D-Fens serves as a stand in for a more general type of person. Michael Douglas – perhaps the most straightforwardly American actor of his generation, but that’s a can of worms for later – becomes the everyman fed-up. All he wants is to get across town to Venice for his little girl’s birthday. Crew cut, shirt and tie, briefcase in hand; there’s nothing extraordinary about D-Fens’ appearance. In fact, he presents distinctly as a push-over. When he breaks from the rules of everyday “civilized” life, it is the result of a final straw, one tiny indignity on top of a heap of small injustices. The first half of D-fens’ escalatingly violent rampage from East LA to Venice is full of incidents spurred by the unnecessary meanness of strangers. The Korean bodega owner spitefully charges too much for soda, the homeless guy in the park demanding money, the fast food manager who dickishly won’t serve breakfast four minutes after the official cut-off. It’s all too much and D-Fens isn’t going to take it anymore.
There’s a certain glee about the destruction of these events, as if our protagonist’s dreams are all coming true. The randomness of the encounters, combined with the D-Fens’ geographically-based objective make the progression of events feels strangely like a video game. This unreality is made only stronger by the ever increasing armory that our protagonist amasses with every turn. At one point after D-Fens has used a rocket launcher to blow up a construction site causing unnecessary traffic, a small child earnestly asks what movie this is for. Then there are the emotional moments where this action-movie illusion breaks. At times, D-Fens realizes he’s in over his head, but it’s too late to go back. He is responsible for an awful lot of destruction due to his lack of expertise with the machinery he designed for a living. By the time he gets to Venice, to the beachside bungalow he once shared with his family, he doesn’t have the energy to do anything other than collapse on the couch and watch old home movies of better times. He rallies slightly for the climactic showdown with the police on the pier, but even then, he whines “I’m the bad guy here?” before pulling out his weapon – a water pistol.
On the other side is Robert Duvall’s Sergeant Prendergast, a desk jockey cop sucked into action on his last day before retiring to Lake Havasu with his wife. Mocked by his peers for staying off the streets (at the behest of his neurotic spouse, played by Tuesday Weld), Prendergast has a gentle nature, willing to laugh off the insensitive jokes, ready to cut everyone a little slack. However, when no one takes the connections he’s making between the various crimes that come pouring into the precinct seriously, Prendergast takes the opportunity to have a last stand and hits the pavement in pursuit of D-Fens. For him, there’s a more uplifting ending to taking matters into his own hands. Finally he gets to be the smart one, the brave one, but most of all the ONLY one who can handle the case. Unlike D-Fens, he actually proves something on this boiling summer day.
Falling Down is relentless. It pounds its protagonist and its audience ceaselessly with their own inefficacy. Even when drastic, dramatic, gory action is taken, there’s no change in the world at large. Everyone keeps being an asshole, the traffic jam is still there for some unexplained reason, and people are still in line for a burger. This absurd oblivion to the chaos being enacted throughout the film is the lynchpin here, somehow an incredibly believable response to the terrifying events. Widespread, solipsistic detachment from our fellow man is excruciating for D-Fens and the viewer. The best thing to do is succumb to Stockholm Syndrome and root for our protagonist from a safe distance, reveling in the absurdity of the world of the film while simultaneously cringing at its realism.
Though it plays as a randomly-occurring set of events, the narrative structure of Falling Down is actually quite traditional. The inciting incident in the first 10 minutes escalates circumstances followed by a catalytic moment that spirals us through a third act into a climax. The story threads are tightly connected from the opening scene until the end. Prendergast and D-Fens actually cross paths in the opening scene when the police officer happens to be just a few cars behind the soon-to-be homicidal maniac. It’s neat and tidy in the best way, allowing good filmmaking and storytelling to deliver an unexpected gut punch. Schumacher and screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith have accomplished something subtly spectacular with Falling Down: a mainstream nihilistic action film-cum-black comedy, perfect for exorcising the misanthropic rage that comes with the territory of life in the modern world.