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Falling Down

“Falling Down”, a 1993 film directed by Joe Schumacher and starring Michael Douglas remains as relevant today as it was when it was first released, perhaps more so. Douglas plays a character, known for most of the movie only as D-FENS, after his vanity license plate, who has simply had enough. Stuck in LA traffic, he abandons his car and takes off across the city on a quest to meet with his daughter so that he might celebrate her birthday with her. D-FENS , whom we later come to know as William Foster, even at this extremely early point in the film, is miles away from having a rational reason to do anything, however.

He’s going somewhere but, mostly, he’s already gone. In fact, Foster’s life has probably been too rational, so rational and predictable that the walls with which he held back the frustrations in his life, as the title suggests, are falling down. The film manages to play to most people’s worst instincts, righteousness, revenge, vigilantism, without making the character into a monster. By the time he’s gone ballistic on a Korean shopkeeper for price gouging and beaten a Latino gang down before they could take his briefcase, it seems like the movie might turn into some sort of quasi-racist white man’s revenge story.

But, in later scenes, we find Foster repulsed by the racism and homophobia of a Nazi shopkeeper. We see him loose his composure when confronted with a white fast-food employee who takes the rules of his employer to their ridiculous extreme. Foster is not concerned with race but with actions. The film breaks with the stereotypical vigilante film on several counts. Where Dirty Harry had his famous “You feel lucky, punk? ” machismo, Foster is simply going mad. There is no joy and no satisfaction in what he’s doing. No wrongs are made right, no “little guy” avenged, the story, through and through, is about darkness.

Some critics felt the film did, indeed, constitute a shrill, righteous get-even sort of epic (Gonsalves, ¶3) while others disagreed, finding the character to be more complex and interesting (Ebert,¶2). I found the movie to be compelling. Douglas does take on a role that presents real danger for the actor. His character, if poorly portrayed, could have been an unsympathetic racist. The movie could have been taken as a rabid fantasy where the violence that lurks under the surface turns out to be the only way the world can be made right. But it’s more than that.

Foster, by the end of the film, is neither hero nor anti-hero. He’s a human being pushed too far. He may have been a nice guy in his former life, probably a little dull, but his breakdown has been coming for a while. As the film progresses, there are flashbacks where we see that Foster’s violent temper has manifest itself before against his ex-wife and daughter. He’s lost his job, he was already holding back too much anger and, eventually, something had to break. The seedy city through which Foster makes his way to his daughter is certainly not right.

It’s dirty, violent, full of hateful people each of whom only seems concerned with making Foster’s day even worse. Foster, however, is not the pure avenger of the world’s wrongs. He is also violent, haunted and as incoherent in his behavior as are many of his victims. The story isn’t so easy as some critics would have us believe (Berardinelli, ¶2) . While there might be some guilty pleasure in watching Foster berate the rude fast-food worker, or in watching him devastate the gang of street thugs that try to rob him–as they probably have done to many others–it is Foster’s essential emptiness that makes him compelling.

In one sense, he is the man who has had too much and had begun to retaliate, however insanely, at those he sees has his persecutors. On the other, there’s really nothing left to him. He doesn’t feel satisfaction, he feels nothing. It’s hard to believe that there’s any room for love toward his daughter in this shell of a protagonist. It’s hard to believe that he has any motive at all really, and much easier to believe that he’s stalking, almost zombie-like, through a world on which he’s already given up.

Of course, this all cannot go on unnoticed. A police detective, Prendergast , who shares many similarities with Foster, gets what the movies call a “hunch” that all the violent crime being called in is connected. He thinks there’s one perpetrator behind all the chaos and the discovery of Foster’s abandoned car gives him a good lead on who it might be. Prendergast , like Foster, has become obsolete. He’s ready to retire but whatever constitutes the fiber of him was stronger than it was in Foster’s case and he hasn’t broken. He’s still a cop.

And, like Foster, he still has some sense of right and wrong. Prendergast , however, has his social filter intact. There is irony to be had. Prendergast is heading off to retirement and, probably, a feeling of worthlessness similar to Foster’s. Foster has, at once, made himself obsolete to the world and given Prendergast a new lease on being useful. Prendergast ‘s character, played by William Duvall, comes across as competent, experienced and quick. He might be an old dog but he can still hunt and he finds purpose in that.

The film builds tension as Prendergast begins to do the work of tracking down Foster. It becomes apparent that there is going to be a confrontation and that Foster has some sense that it will be the end of him. Where Foster started off as a rampaging animal, he now becomes oddly calm, resigned perhaps. All that remains for him in the world is to see his daughter on her birthday and, beyond that, there is a sense that he sees little future for himself. He has also physically transformed. The beginning of the movie saw him in stereotypical nerd gear.

Heavy glasses, crisp white shirt, slacks, the sort of things one might use reflexively if they were to make cartoons of engineers or computer techs. Now, he has a military jacket on, we know he’s armed and we know even more that he’s very dangerous. Douglas does a magnificent job of allowing the audience see a transformation from harmless nerd to someone who’s become an outright serial killer. Because Prendergast is on to him, there is no way Foster can escape. In most films of this sort, there would have been an easy moral choice set up for the audience.

They would either be rooting for the anti-hero, Foster, or the traditional hero, Prendergast . By the end of the film, we know Prendergast has to stop Foster but we don’t’ want Foster to die. He never shot the Korean store owner, he just exploded because he was being gouged. The store owner probably had likely profited as much from people’s sense of restraint as he did from his inflated prices. The fast-food employee was terrified, but alive, and probably less likely to berate anyone for coming in two minutes past breakfast.

The Latino gang were confronted with exactly the kind of violence they visited on others. There was a sense that they had done far worse to people than Foster did to them. And the Nazi store owner, perhaps he was symbolic of Foster’s fears of himself. Was he becoming a Nazi? A paranoid, self-righteous bigot? That scene, perhaps, is where the movie deals with itself the best. Foster executed the store owner. It was never clear whether Foster meant to execute the man with whom he emphatically stated he had nothing in common or if he meant to execute himself and the killing was a foreshadowing.

Falling Down isn’t afraid to confront the audience with such complexity, and it does it well.

Sources Cited

Gonslaves, Rob. “He’s Mad As Hell and blah, blah, blah”. 2006, 28 Dec. <http://www. efilmcritic. com/ review. php? movie=4296reviewer=416> Ebert, Roger. “Falling Down”. 1993, 23 Feb. <http://rogerebert. suntimes. com/apps/pbcs. dll/article? AID=/19930226/REVIEWS/302260301/1023> James Berardinelli. “Film Review, Falling Down. 1993 Retrieved from < http://www. reelviews. net/movies /f/falling_down. html>

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