Joel Schumacher’s seething satire on the inherent ills of modern society
By the time Bill Clinton began his presidential tenure, The United States of America had become a land of great financial disparity.
Under the Reagan and Bush administrations, military expenditure had grown exponentially, and while the public sector felt the burn of widespread austerity, many workers were made obsolete by the growing threat of technology, which had begun to impact upon working society in a way not seen since the great depression. It is no coincidence that Falling Down‘s Bill Foster has become outmoded in his role as a manufacturer of weapons.
Falling Down chronicles the urban decay of a civilisation squirming under the strain of private power, and in particular two Americans caught in the trap of a gnawing rat race. While these men operate at opposite ends of the law, they in fact share many similarities. They are both undervalued in their professions, are both a part of conflicting relationships, and each of them has a daughter who they no longer see. Both men are victims of their environments, but how they differ is the way in which they deal with those problems, a fact highlighted by an ill-fated meeting on a pier in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. The movie is about decisions, and the fine lines that people tread. It is about crossing that point of no return, described by Michael Douglas’s unravelling character as “the point in a journey where it’s longer to go back to the beginning”. Having finally committed his first murder, Bill Foster knows he has already passed that point, and then some.
The opening scene sets the tone perfectly as our fated adversaries suffer the same early morning routine. Sweltering in the Los Angeles heat, Foster (Douglas) is a ticking time bomb nearing explosion, surrounded by honking cars and leering inner city children as a fly buzzes around his dripping brow with an almost teasing persistence. Saturated by the morning chaos, he decides to leave his car in traffic and head home. Disappearing into the concrete wilderness, Bill seems to have turned a corner, but that corner will soon lead him along an increasingly dark alley.
Surplus Store Owner: We’re the same, you and me. We’re the same, don’t you see?
Bill Foster: We are not the same. I’m an American. You’re a sick asshole.
Wallowing in that same traffic jam is Detective Prendergast, played by a wonderfully understated Robert Duvall. Prendergast is a desk cop on the verge of early retirement, who, like his adversary, wants to make it back home for altogether different reasons. Prendergast is heckled by his colleagues for his lax demenour, despised by his belligerent captain for leaving the street behind after the death of his infant daughter. Like his lost and lurching foe, Prendergast is a buttoned-down stiff oppressed by society, but he seems to be at peace with his predicament, is able to easily put things into perspective. When he passes the same graffitied billboard which had left Foster grimacing, he is able to see the funny side of a doodled figure crawling from between a lady’s breasts. Prendergast has experienced an all-to-real personal tragedy, and all else seems trivial by comparison.
Although Foster’s acts of violence grow increasingly repugnant, the reasons for those acts we can fully empathise with, and for much of the movie our stifled antagonist is very much an anti-hero, the kind who is likely repressed beneath the patriotic facades of every full-bloodied American. As Bill sets off on his crusade he maintains the delusion that he is not the bad guy, and to an extent this seems to be the case. When he visits a Korean convenience store for change to use the phone he is mildly perturbed by the fact that he is forced to buy something first, and positively incensed when the store’s inflated prices leave him with too little change to fulfil his purpose. When he subsequently smashes the man’s merchandise, he is flabbergasted to see him cowering under the violence of his fury and actually mistaking him for the thief in the equation.
Mr. Lee – Take the money.
You think I’m a thief? Oh, you see, I’m not the thief. I’m not the one charging 85 cents for a *stinking* soda! You’re the thief. I’m just standing up for my rights as a consumer. – Bill Foster
Set during the real-life LA riots ― an event that actually brought a halt to production ― Falling Down provides us with many examples of private power’s degradation of American society. This is a land of isolation and selfishness, of low ethical values and second-rate service ― the kind of attitudes that low opportunity and joblessness invariably breed. When Foster visits a fast food restaurant, he is the victim of senseless bureaucracy when he misses breakfast by a mere minute. When he attempts to sit down in a public space, he is immediately confronted by gang members looking for trouble, while a predatory conman later accosts him with aggressive demands for anything he can get his hands on. Afterwards, when he wanders into an army surplus store he is mistaken as a vigilante by a deranged neo-nazi whose hatred for any and all races symbolises our propensity to blame each other for our societal predicaments. Foster is the conduit for our collective outrage.
The Los Angeles we are confronted with is a product of the fear and confusion, featuring the kind of racial stereotyping the mainstream media invariably propagates. It is this confusion and urge to point the finger that leaves our unwilling antagonist mired in conflict, gunning down phone booths in acts of wanton rage and apologising meekly when that same gun is mistakenly triggered for the sake of false advertising. When he somehow contrives to take a family hostage, he is horrified to think that he has hurt their infant daughter. Later, he causes a belligerent golfer’s heart attack, enraged by his selfishness and hostility and justified when the man clings to the ownership of that land as he clings to his dying breath.
Prendergast: Hey, they lie to everyone. They lie to the fish.
Prendergast’s department is too busy mired in stereotypes to catch up with Foster’s unlikely vigilante, an issue which reignites our unwilling desk jockey’s long-dormant appetite for police work. Proving his worth with a series of quick-witted discoveries, our hero is soon on the trail, and a meeting with Foster’s mother reveals a man at breaking point who is beset on the kind of reconciliation that can only end in disaster. In the end, it is the similarities the two share that sets Prendergast on the right track, and it is his understanding of the delicacies of such a fragile family unit that allows him to talk the ever maniacal Foster back from the brink of insanity.
Foster is more than just a man who feels wronged by society’s uncaring; he is a control freak in an environment devoid of any, a person who pursues Reagan’s family values with the kind of unnerving obsession that transforms him into an unfit father. ‘I’m the bad guy? How did that happen?’ Foster finally asks as he and Prendergast square-off for their fateful showdown. He has lived his entire life as a servant of America, and feels he should be rewarded duly, not disregarded and turned into the enemy. ‘Is that what this is about? You’re angry because you got lied to? Prendergast asks. ‘Hey, they lie to everyone. They lie to the fish.’
And they’ll lie to you too, but it’s how you deal with it that truly matters.