Directed by Joel Schumacher
In Falling Down, Michael Douglas plays William Foster, a recently laid off Defense contractor who has had enough. On a sweaty morning stuck in Los Angeles traffic (a scene similar to one in Fellini’s 8 1/2), Foster gets fed up and abandons his car right there on the freeway onramp. The car behind him asks where he’s going, and he says, “I’m going home.”
William spends the rest of his day trying to see his daughter, this being her birthday, but his ex-wife has a restraining order against him for reasons we’ll come to understand. This might be the longest day of the year because we meet William in the middle of the day, told it’s morning, and after a series of detours we end with him on a pier, also in the middle of the day. You get the impression that in this version of LA, it’s always midday and it’s always 97 degrees outside.
The heat helps push William to the edge. He goes on a sort of ideological rampage, taking out his wrath on men and women of color, but the first person he kills is a Neo Nazi. William doesn’t see himself as the bad guy we see. He just wants to get home, and people keep getting in his way, at least the way he sees it.
Near the end of the film, when William eggs a retiring police officer (Robert Duvall) into shooting him, he claims to be surprised that he’s the bad guy in all of this. It’s not hard to see that his race and gender are the only basis for his self-righteousness.
William Foster is a strange character because he embodies some of your or my frustrations (one reviewer called this “an anti-Odyssey story” about “the lie of the American Dream”), but he’s also a racist monster whose behavior is utterly despicable. It’s only that he claims not to have it out for anyone in particular that makes him one level beneath an all-out alt right self-righteous bigot. Foster is the everyman, and his anger is one that has been covered in several other movies/shows, though in something like American Beauty or Breaking Bad, these life frustrations turn into sadness.
So the movie makes a blend of two characters in William Foster. He’s a man who once worked for the Department of Defense, building missiles to “protect the country,” and he expresses the deepest frustrations about the way his life has crumbled while a plastic surgeon, for example, makes enough money to live in a mansion. He feels lied to, and though his anger and outburst is frightening, the core of this frustration with the American Dream is not exactly new territory. It’s a quality that might humanize him in another setting, but the problem is that he takes out this frustration mostly on groups of minorities, and it’s hard not to see Foster as a folk hero for the alt-right.
It’s hard not to see the influence the LA riots (1992) may have had on this film, particularly in Foster’s abuse of a Korean shop owner. He goes on to terrorize and intimidate other people of different ethnic backgrounds, either consciously or subconsciously blaming them for all of his problems. When the Neo Nazi applauds his racist efforts, however, he claims not to have any idea what he’s talking about. The scene in which he shoots dead the Nazi is fascinating because it adds some complexity to a character who may not call for it.
Foster is not a man to look up to, if that wasn’t clear already, and this scene near the middle of the film seems an attempt to make him less than an outright villain. Are we supposed to cheer Foster’s rebuttal towards the Nazi gun store owner? Or are we supposed to see Foster as a figure who exists in a vacuum, a self-absorbed sociopath whose behavior has nothing to do with our society?
He’s a strange character who eventually makes it home to intimidate his ex-wife. When she runs out, he stays behind and watches old home video footage of his life before it went downhill, though there’s a teaser of his temper which would ruin his marriage. Foster pursues his wife to a nearby pier before goading Duvall into shooting him, and the movie ends with a close up of the television set still running, showing Foster when he was a younger, happier woman, as if to memorialize who he once was.
So Falling Down is the portrait of a sad, misguided man, and the apparent empathy for Foster’s plight suggests that he really is an American everyman, that he embodies all of the pent up rage both of a white man and of an American. He expected everything to work out for the best, and when it doesn’t, he has no idea why. He’s mad because he doesn’t understand why the world works the way that it does.
There’s an entire other half to this story involving Duvall as Prendergast, the retiring police officer who takes it upon himself to track down Foster. It’s his last day, and everyone expects him to coast to the finish line. They crack jokes about him sitting behind a desk, and another officer collects his gun since he’ll no longer need it. You already know, of course, that there will be a scene in which he very much needs his side arm but doesn’t have it.
Prendergast keeps receiving calls from his wife who agonizes over his safety. She’s played for a fool, to some degree, as her calls are nothing but pestering and worrisome. Her concerns are unfounded, in his eyes, but later we’re made to understand her paranoia, and it’s a little bit heartbreaking. I could never tell where this was going because Prendergast’s marriage appears to be a horrible idea, and now that he’s retiring to Lake Havasu, as she wants it, it’s not hard to imagine their relationship crumbling to the ground with nothing else to do.
Prendergast doesn’t want to retire, and he definitely doesn’t want to move to Lake Havasu, but he does so, in the end, because it’s what she wants. And we’re supposed to be happy about it? Boy, that was just a strange storyline that doesn’t seem to add anything to the story, even thematically, unless of course I completely missed something.
Falling Down is a mainstream action movie with subtext that makes it worth thinking about, similar to the way a Kathryn Bigelow movie deconstructs gender roles (Blue Steel, Point Break). Still, it feels a little benign, as if Schumacher was restraining his main character to make him not too unlikeable. It seems we’re supposed to identify with the core of Foster’s frustrations, to some degree, but it’s really hard to, and I don’t want to try.
Up Next: King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (2007), There Will Be Blood (2007), Black Panther (2018)