Crawling under the skin of Joel Schumacher’s seething satire on the inherent ills of modern society
Of all the antiheroes in modern American cinema, few are as conflicted as Michael Douglas’ buttoned-down time bomb Bill Foster, an everyman pushed to the brink by a society gone rotten. In an ever-changing world Foster has become obsolete. He’s lost his job, his home, his family; his ideals, his beliefs, his values no longer apply. In the cutthroat world of late 20th century America, Foster has become a stranger in a strange land, and it’s safe to say he’s not too pleased about it.
Antiheroes are a peculiar, fascinating breed. In a traditional sense, we’re not supposed to root for them. They’re generally rule breakers, characters who inhabit a darker region and often set bad examples. Their intentions are usually noble enough (at least in their own minds), but in a world of murky half-shades they’re forced into unethical decisions that go against the unrealistic idealism of traditional swashbuckling heroics. The fact that Douglas creates a psychotic rebel striving for traditional moral values is the ultimate irony, the reason why we get behind the character so strongly. Ultimately, we relate to him because he harbours the same frustrations that we do. We admire him because he does and says the things we’re afraid to.
That’s not to say we agree with everything Foster says and does. There’s a difference between free speech and obnoxiousness, between liberty and prejudice, between striving for what’s right and pursuing it in the wrong way. Like the best antiheroes, the Foster character asks questions of his audience. Our relationship with him is complex and often leads to self-analysis. Is it right to take a stand against the system, to meet violence with violence, to unleash a semi-automatic weapon as a protest against false advertising? In a world entrenched in the pursuit of basic rights and freedoms, that question has perhaps never been more relevant, the answer never more uncertain.
Falling Down was shot during the LA Riots, a period of violent protests triggered by acts of police brutality and an American justice system that was, and still is, systemically prejudiced. On March 16, 1991, 15-year-old African-American girl Latasha Harlins was fatally shot in the back of the head at point blank range by Korean convenience store owner Soon Ja Du. Du had wrongly accused Harlins of stealing a $1.79 bottle of orange juice, instigating a scuffle that ultimately led to her death. Video footage and eye witnesses later confirmed that it was the girl’s intention to pay for the beverage, but Du got off lightly.
I was willing to mind my own business. I was willing to respect your territory and treat you like a man, but you couldn’t leave it alone, could you? You couldn’t let a man sit here for five minutes and take a rest on your precious, piece of shit hill. Okay. You want my briefcase? I’ll get it for you, okay? You can have my briefcase. Here, you want my briefcase [Foster grabs the baseball bat hiding behind his briefcase and swings it at the two thugs] Here’s my briefcase!Bill Foster
On November 15, 1991, Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, an offence that carries a maximum prison sentence of 16 years. Though the jury agreed that the prosecuted should serve the full sentence, judge Joyce Karlin sentenced Du to five years of probation, 400 hours of community service, a $500 restitution and funeral expenses, stating, “Did Mrs. Du react inappropriately? Absolutely. But was that reaction understandable? I think that it was. This is not a time for revenge… and no matter what sentence this court imposes, Mrs. Du will be punished every day for the rest of her life.”
The black community questioned Karlin’s decision. Would the judge have been so lenient if the victim had been white? It was a valid question, one that spilled onto the streets of Los Angeles after yet another racial injustice, this time involving five LAPD officers, four of whom were charged but later acquitted of assault. The fact that African-American victim Rodney King’s unmotivated and unconscionable beating was caught on videotape left a nation in disbelief. King was tasered, struck dozens of times with side-handled batons, stomped, handcuffed and hogtied in a brutal attack that had absolutely no justification. The officers in question even claimed that King was high on PCP and acting aggressively at the time of the incident, though no traces of the drug were found. Crucially, none of the convicting jury were full-blood African Americans.
So timely was Joel Schumacher’s scathing satire that filming was halted as the riots resulting from the Rodney King incident continued to intensify. In an era of economic uncertainty, Falling Down presented the city as a central character, an enemy of the people and the root cause of such a sudden sociological meltdown. As screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith would explain in an interview with the Los Angeles Times just prior to the movie’s release, “Los Angeles is troubled, clearly, but at this point, I don’t know what solutions there are to be had. To me, even though the movie deals with complicated urban issues, it really is just about one basic thing: the main character represents the old power structure of the U.S. that has now become archaic, and hopelessly lost. And that way, I guess you could say D-FENS is like Los Angeles. For both of them, it’s adjust-or-die time — that’s what the movie is about.”
Many would criticise Schumacher’s often stifling film as racist and exploitative, and it’s easy to see how such a conclusion could have been drawn. Foster’s no-nonsense Dirty Harry variant is a character who we consistently root for, his outward displays of fury both relatable and comical, but arriving in such a heated climate of fractious identity politics, the character touched a raw nerve in some quarters. Foster’s sense of alienation, dwindling nationalism and vehement outbursts, some of them aimed at immigrants who for him represent the deterioration of traditional American values, smack of middle-class, white rage, the kind that still spills onto the streets well into the 21st century.
When Foster confronts a convenience store owner for his outrageous prices we will him every step of the way. All he wanted was to break a dollar so he could call his daughter on her birthday, but the man insists that he buy something first. When the purchased item leaves him with less change than required, he understandably flips his lid, trashing the store during a self-righteous game of guess the price that transports our traditionalist and his modern adversary back to the 1960s. Later, when Foster stops to rest on an abandoned stretch of land, he’s hassled by two thugs looking to hustle him. They feel he should pay a toll for the privilege of sitting, but a baseball bat wielding Foster has other ideas. We’ve all been subjected to those moments at one time or another, and right or wrong we’ve fantasised about taking the law into our own hands. During the movie’s first act, Foster’s actions are nothing short of heroic — at least in theory.
Unfortunately, the film is a little heavy-handed in terms of racial stereotyping. That the store clerk in question is Korean is so on the nose in light of real-life events it’s positively startling, even if Foster does show his ignorance by assuming that the man is Chinese. The crooks who confront Foster are Latino gangbangers, later shot by our increasingly unstable protagonist after attempting a drive-by on a busy street and injuring a white woman in the process. Do these characters exist in the real world? Sure. But at such a sensitive time the story of a white renegade gunning down gangbangers in cold blood was hardly helpful. Falling Down is an impressive, hugely entertaining movie, but it often captures the spirit of the times with an almost self-congratulatory Death Wish flourish, and does so for the sake of entertainment. Interpreted the wrong way, the film’s exploitative nature is more than apparent.
But the key word here is Interpretation. There may be more than a hint of the Charles Bronson to Douglas’ uniquely compelling renegade, but when the smoke clears he doesn’t ride into the sunset with his head held high. What we’re dealing with is a deeply wounded man with a history of rage who is actually very sick. We revel in Foster’s self-righteous outbursts but there are consequences to his actions. Big ones. This is a character motivated by the injustices of a system that crushes the little man, one that exploits social division and discriminates as a means for maintaining power. You only have to look at the fallout from the George Floyd incident to see that governments utilise a ‘divide and conquer’ mantra. Racism isn’t natural, it’s nurtured, has played a vital role in the preservation of private power since society began, something many of us are beginning to wake up to. Race-baiting may result in votes from sections of society who feel their interests are being catered to, but just like Foster, those people are expendable, faceless, tomorrow’s sacrifice. Douglas’ maelstrom of injustice, a man who feels slighted in what he feels is his rightful environment, is finally realising this, however muddled and misdirected his frustrations.
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
Ethnic minorities aren’t the only villains in Falling Down. Foster is sick of society as a whole, tackling commercialism, bureaucracy, the arrogance of white privilege, and even racism and homophobia. When confronted by a twisted, surplus store Neo-Nazi in a truly oppressive scene, Foster renounces the man’s suggestion that the two have much in common. The man has been monitoring Foster’s path of destruction and assumes it is racially motivated. “We are not the same,” our would-be vigilante insists. “I’m an American. You’re a sick asshole.”
Foster’s most endearing outburst happens when he visits a fast food chain. Wielding a bag of automatic weapons, Foster is refused breakfast by a sanctimonious floor manager who is the personification of a global world that treats citizens as statistics rather than people. When our protagonist changes his mind and opts for a burger, stroking his gun like a nervous child, he is horrified at the “sorry, miserable, squashed thing,” he is served, a far cry from the “plump, juicy” burger advertised. The moment when a young boy tentatively raises his hand to explain what’s wrong with the picture is comedy gold, and Douglas is utterly compelling as the disgruntled consumer, his attempts at communicating with the manager of a corporate franchise on a human level absolutely futile.
True to its title, Falling Down is rarely so light-hearted going forward. Schumacher’s edgy, claustrophobic depiction of the modern city is positively stifling, drenching you to the bone as the sweltering Los Angeles heat continues to pile on the burden. Foster’s descent into violence is steady, conflicted but ultimately abhorrent, the humour gradually darkening to the point where it becomes almost humourless, something James Newton Howard’s increasingly wretched score beautifully captures. When a cantankerous golfer decides to use a trespassing Foster as target practice, he condemns the man and the selfish privatisation of land he represents, pulls out a shotgun and unloads with both barrels, sending him sputtering into cardiac arrest, his heart pills careening towards a nearby pond. When the man reaches desperately for assistance, Douglas takes great pleasure in watching him squirm. “Aren’t you sorry you didn’t let me pass through your golf course? Now you’re gonna die wearing that stupid little hat,” he gloats. The fact that the man clings to his ownership of the land as if clinging to his dying breath is enough to justify the act in the eyes of an audience who are on the outside looking in, but Foster’s heroics have all but evaporated. He has become the very scourge he set out to vanquish.
Pursuing Foster is Robert Duvall’s mild-mannered detective Prendergast, the sobering yin to Douglas’ raging yang. Duvall’s sublimely understated turn is the movie’s anchor, a calming presence in the face of so much selfishness, arrogance and aggression. While these two men operate at opposite ends of the law they in fact share many similarities. They are both undervalued in their professions, both are involved in strained relationships, and each 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 a wonderfully tense, strangely cathartic showdown on a pier in Venice Beach, Los Angeles. The movie is about decisions and the fine lines that people tread. It’s about crossing that point of no return, described by an unravelling Foster as “the point in a journey where it’s longer to go back to the beginning”.
The opening scene sets the tone perfectly, our fated adversaries suffering the same early morning routine. Consumed by the rush hour of a gnawing rat race, Foster is already nearing explosion, hemmed-in 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 and heads home to his family. Disappearing into the concrete wilderness, Foster seems to have turned a corner, but in truth he no longer has a family. His ex-wife, Beth, played by a sublimely fragile Barbara Hershey, has filed a restraining order against him. Foster has a history of rage, and Beth wants him nowhere near their daughter.
I did everything they told me to. Did you know I build missiles? I helped to protect America. You should be rewarded for that. Instead they give it to the plastic surgeons, y’know, they lied to me.Bill Foster
Wallowing in that same traffic jam is Prendergast, 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 demeanour, 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 who has no choice but to eat shit and like it, 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 that left Foster grimacing only moments earlier, he sees the funny side of a doodled figure crawling from between a lady’s giant cleavage while calling out for help. Prendergast has experienced an all-to-real personal tragedy and all else seems trivial by comparison.
Prendergast’s department is too busy mired in racial stereotypes to catch up with Foster’s unlikely vigilante. Never in a million years would they pin such a path of wanton destruction on a flag-saluting buzzcut in a shirt and tie, the personification of nuclear family values. This reignites our unwilling desk jockey’s long-dormant appetite for police work and stokes the fires of his wife’s worst fear: that her husband may be killed on the job and taken away from her just like their daughter. Proving his worth with a series of quick-witted discoveries, our semi-reluctant hero is soon on the trail, a meeting with Foster’s mother revealing a man at breaking point 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, 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.
Douglas gives a career-high performance as the deeply confused Foster, leaping from bone-dry comedy to absolute desolation with unnerving aplomb. One minute he’s flying into fits of rage, the next he’s flabbergasted at the results of his own behaviour. It is this sense of personal conflict that allows us to empathise with Foster throughout. One minute we loathe him, the next we find ourselves sympathising with him as one might a lost child. When the dust from Foster’s convenience store typhoon temporarily settles, he is genuinely shocked to find Mr. Lee cowering beneath his fury, actually mistaking HIM for the thief in the equation. When his Uzi accidentally goes off in the fast food restaurant, he’s endlessly apologetic, adamant that he has no intention of hurting anyone. When he subconsciously takes a family hostage and mistakes their little girl’s blood for his own, he’s horrified that he may have hurt her. He can no longer see the highway for the smog.
Though Foster spends the majority of Falling Down denouncing the system and the society it has forged, he’s just as much a product of it, a hypocrite who’s unable to recognise his own behavioural flaws in a world that has passed him by. “I’m the bad guy? How did that happen?” he finally asks as he and Prendergast reach their philosophical endgame. He has lived his entire life as a servant of America and feels he should be rewarded, not disregarded and turned into the enemy. “Is that what this is about? You’re angry because you got lied to?” Prendergast replies. “Hey, they lie to everyone. They lie to the fish.”
And they’ll lie to you too. It’s how you deal with it that counts.