Falling Down (1993)

Director: Joel Schumacher

Starring: Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey, Rachel Ticotin, Tuesday Weld, Frederic Forrest

Every day, people struggle to find their place in this world. The lucky ones who make it work carve out a piece of the proverbial pie for themselves and their families. Some who aren’t as fortunate wind up as lost souls who become frustrated and lash out. We’ve seen their kind all too often. Occasionally they show up on the television, their images displayed 24/7 by all the news outlets for all the wrong reasons. What we don’t hear about as frequently are the stories of those who’ve worked hard their whole adult lives, only to have it pulled out from under them on the day when they are considered non-essential personnel. How one handles the idea that they are no longer relevant or necessary is what makes up the difference between our two main characters in “Falling Down.”

Bill Foster (Michael Douglas) is a man who has always had something of a short fuse, sometimes scaring those close to him half to death, but never really having been pushed into violence. He’d always felt secure enough in his work and in his marriage that he never took it that far. Yet, the potential danger was always there, bubbling just underneath the surface. From his clean-cut appearance, including a white shirt and tie, you’d think the guy was a Mr. Rogers type. One hot Los Angeles morning, Bill reaches his boiling point. After becoming fed up with endless highway traffic delays (in a claustrophobic scene meant as an homage to Federico Fellini’s “8 1/2”), Bill abandons his car with the personalized license plate ‘D-FENS’ and continues his journey on foot. When pressed, Bill simply states, “I’m going home!” This day is special to Bill, as it is his little girl’s birthday.

His destination would make Bill a sympathetic character under normal circumstances, and it does until we learn the whole truth about him. Bill has been unemployed for over a year, his marriage is long since over and his ex-wife Beth (Barbara Hershey) has even issued a restraining order against him. Still, nothing will deter Bill from making his way to his former house in Venice, California. Anyone standing in his way between the highway and his home had better clear a path. “Falling Down” would not be one tenth as intriguing if everyone complied with Bill’s wishes.

Some of the roadblocks in Bill’s journey are representative of everyday complaints we find ourselves making. For instance, he balks at having to pay the Korean convenience store owner 85 cents for a can of soda when it won’t give him enough change for the pay phone. In response, he lobbies for a return to a time when prices were more reasonable, trashing the store as he does it. In one of the movie’s best sequences, he enters a fast food restaurant and interrupts the lives of its customers and employees. He has it in mind that he wants breakfast, and causes a scene when it’s revealed that they stopped serving breakfast shortly before he arrived. To force the issue, Bill pulls out a gun (one of many acquired in an earlier run-in with a Latino gang), but it’s all for show. He even accidentally fires a few rounds into the ceiling. Eventually changing his mind, Bill orders from the lunch menu. It is upon receiving his food that Bill once again makes an observation that we’ve all made at one time or another: Why the heck do the burgers in the fast food menus always look thicker and juicier than the one in your hand?

During the Charles Bronson “Death Wish” days, Bill Foster might have been portrayed as an anti-heroic vigilante. Michael Douglas instead plays a troubled, confused and ultimately sad man who has allowed the world to beat him down, but one who doesn’t see himself as others see him. Bill at one point asks in a surprised tone of voice, “I’m the bad guy?!” Playing the other side of the coin is Sgt. Prendergast (Robert Duvall), a man who is on his last day on the job as a police officer. Like Bill, Prendergast faces an uncertain future, one which he is forcing upon himself so that his nervous wife (Tuesday Weld) won’t have to spend every day wondering if he’ll come home again. Unlike Bill, Prendergast is meeting the changes in his life with grace and dignity. It is natural, through the processes of motion picture conventions, that these two should cross paths in a final showdown. But to succumb to the notion that this is a true contest of good vs. evil is to ignore all the evidence. There are critters lurking about in this story that are more soulless than Bill will ever allow himself to become. The strongest example of this is the army surplus store owner (Frederic Forrest) who reveals himself to be an unflinching neo-Nazi, a man with nothing but hate in his heart. Bill himself has legitimate points to make about modern consumerism and the class system. It’s the ways in which he goes about exposing these areas of our society that are wrong.

The famous nursery rhyme about a certain English overpass’s imminent destruction serves as a metaphor for the decline of Bill Foster’s psyche. Throughout the film, he himself is “falling down.” It is for this reason that one must keep in mind, however amusing or quotable certain scenes or lines of dialogue may be, we are not bearing witness to a comedy here. “Falling Down” is actually a very tragic tale, but is so well-acted by its leads that it rises above the dark, melancholy cloud that its story casts. It’s easily one of Douglas’s three best pictures of his acting career, and probably the best in the career of director Joel Schumacher (with the possible exception of “The Lost Boys”). Made during a time when the US was entering into a period of slow but steady economic recovery, “Falling Down” is also a movie that reaps the benefits of possessing a story with the same resonance in 2015 as it had in 1993.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    Very impressive review in which you “get” all the subtleties of the film’s characters and the fact that most people are not just good or evil, but rather much, much more complex. I’d even say that the film is MORE relevant today.

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