Film Review - Falling Down (1993)

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INTRODUCTION

'Falling Down' is the study of a man's tortured mental descent from law abiding citizen to crazed killer, as he walks across town. Bill Foster has lost his wife, his child and his job. He sees himself as a decent man, thrown on to the scrapheap of life. He is broken, demoralised, and unable to cope. He's at the end of his tether, and the film documents how the final pieces of his life collapse on a hot day in Los Angeles. He is falling down.

If that sounds like heavy going, this film never allows itself to become too morbid. There is an uplifting counter-point to Foster's breakdown - there is Prendergast, a cop in a rather similar position, unappreciated by most of his colleagues and heading for an early retirement after years of unsatisfying service. With a pushy wife and no children (having lost one) he seems to have little to look forward to in life. But unlike Foster, Prendergast is holding on to his values, and keeping his life together. He is staying sane.

The two men are clearly destined to meet, but not before we see Foster wend a trail of destruction through the city streets.


WHAT'S THE STORY?

It's a swelteringly hot day, and a car driver is stuck in a traffic jam. His name is William (Bill) Foster, but for most of the film he is known only by his personalised licence plate number 'D-FENS', and he's becoming increasingly disturbed. Irate drivers are blowing their horns for no sensible reason, exhaust fumes are rising, an annoying fly is buzzing him, and no one's going anywhere. We all know how very exasperating that could be, but for someone who is already seriously depressed with the way his life has developed, it's just too much.

Foster is wearing a short-sleeved white shirt with a tie, and he has with him a briefcase. It seems he is on the way to his daily job. Foster has been a law abiding citizen, a respectable white, middle class guy with a good job, a pretty wife, and a child. But that has all changed. His marriage has broken up, and there's a court order barring him from visiting his ex-wife and daughter. And although he's keeping up a pretence of going to his work as a defence engineer, we later learn that in fact he's been redundant several weeks. Foster, we learn, has violent tendencies (hence the court order), but nothing that he couldn't control when his life was going in the right direction and he had a role in society. Now he is alone, and he feels useless.

Unable to cope with sitting in that traffic jam, with his blood pressure rising faster than the temperature, Foster just has to get out. He has to get some fresh air. So he quits the car and just walks away. He has no clear plans, but it's his daughter's birthday and he wants to see her. It's become his only purpose in living.

And he might just make it in an amicable way, but the nastier side of the society he is living in puts obstacles in his way at every turn, and tools of violence fall one by one into his hands. And he begins to use these tools, as his frustrations build. Among others he meets and assaults are (in his eyes) a mean-spirited Korean, a vicious street gang, a fast food restaurant with petty rules and cheap consumer cons, a racist homophobic, a short tempered road worker, and a pompous golfer; they all turn him further and further away from reason and sanity.

Meanwhile, a policeman whose life is also taking a downward turn, is gradually putting together the trail of mayhem and violence which leads to Foster. Detective Prendergast is pretty unhappy with his life too, but he still has dignity and pride in his own character and morality. He keeps his sense of purpose in life intact, and his purpose today is to stop Foster.


MAIN CAST & CHARACTERS

ACTOR 
CHARACTER 
Michael Douglas 
William 'D-FENS' Foster 
Robert Duvall 
Detective Martin Prendergast 
Rachel Ticotin
Detective Sandra Torres
Barbara Hershey
Elizabeth Trevino (Foster's ex-wife)
Frederic Forrest
Nick (Nazi shopkeeper)

THE FACTS OF THE FILM

DIRECTOR : Joel Schumacher

WRITERS / SCREENPLAY :

  • Ebbe Roe Smith

YEAR OF RELEASE : 1993

RUNNING TIME : 113 minutes

GENRE : Drama

GUIDENCE : Swearing and realistic scenes of violence throughout

ACADEMY NOMINATIONS : None



Michael Douglas as William 'D-FENS' Foster
Michael Douglas as William 'D-FENS' Foster

TRIVIA

No studio in Hollywood wanted to make a film out of Ebbe Roe Smith's script, until Michael Douglas himself saw it, and pushed for it to be made.

The title of the film of course features in the lyrics of the song 'London Bridge' - 'London Bridge is falling down, falling down'. At one point Prendergast sings the song over the phone to his wife, and plans to retire to Lake Havasu Arizona, where the old London Bridge was relocated in 1971. The tune of the song also features on the snow globe which Foster buys.

A distraught man protesting about 'not being economically viable' outside a bank is wearing exactly the same clothes as Foster - even the same tie.

The cashier at 'Whammy Burgers' is played by Michelle Pfeiffer's younger sister, Dedee.

BEST CHARACTERS / PERFORMANCES

Only two characters carry this movie - William Foster, or 'D-FENS', played by Michael Douglas, and Police Officer Prendergast, played by Robert Duvall.

The performance of Michael Douglas is the keystone of the movie; Douglas is an actor who has never been afraid of taking on the unglamorous role in preference to the heroic or sexy. The role he plays in this film is deeply unglamorous, and he plays it well. It may be his best ever role.

Prendergast is also important; the police officer stops us feeling too sorry for Foster's breakdown, because we can see in Prendergast how it is possible to conquer one's demons, Foster cannot see this.

One other actor - Frederic Forrest - turns in a memorable cameo as Foster's least pleasant antagonist. The Nazi store owner appropriately elicits Foster's most violent response.


WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT?

The character of Foster makes this film - a story of how circumstances can create a monster where none existed. He's not black or white. He's always had a short fuse, and has been prone to temper-induced violence, but when in control. he'd never dream of doing anything criminal like mugging someone or burgling a house, He's a law-abiding citizen.

His descent into violent derangement is mirrored by his perception of the depravity of the society he lives in. It seems that only Foster can see the lying, the cheating, the selfishness, the laziness, the trashiness and the ugliness of the society around him - the qualities he sees in the people he encounters.

How one views these encounters may raise in some viewers the realisation that Foster's outlook on life is uncomfortably close to their own, and it's just a thread of cohesion in their life, or hopefully a sense of moral correctness, which stops them behaving exactly like the anti-hero of this movie.


NEGATIVES ?

Some critics felt that the presence of Prendergast as the lighter counter story to Foster's dark story of hopelessness, diluted the power of the piece. I disagree. Without Prendergast's positivity, the descent of Foster would just be a depressing tale of unremitting gloom. Without Prendergast also, there would be no moral yardstick by which to measure Foster's behaviour - it's uncomfortably easy to feel sympathy for Foster's renegade, but Prendergast's self-control in his own sorry circumstances shows that although there may be a reason behind Foster's violent actions, there really is no excuse.

For some the script, and Joel Schumacher's direction, may be a little too unsubtle. Even in the worst of neighbourhoods, one might have to be seriously unlucky to encounter quite so many unpleasant people as Foster does, testing his patience and tolerance in so many different ways. It all may be a little contrived, though that's not something that's ever bothered me when watching the movie. Foster's breakdown is too strong a theme for it to be diluted by nitpicks of that kind.


FAVOURITE QUOTES

Some of Foster's put downs of the very annoying people he meets - particularly at 'Whammy Burgers' - are the sort of things as consumers we'd all like to be able to say when we feel a sense of injustice, if only we had the courage.

Right near the end of the movie, Prendergast finally confronts Foster, and the following conversation takes place.

Prendergast: 'Let's meet a couple of police officers. They are all good guys'.
Foster: 'I'm the bad guy?'
Prendergast: 'Yeah'.
Foster: 'How did that happen?'

The brief exchange encapsulates the utter confusion Foster now feels about his life. He always thought he was a good guy who worked hard, had family values, and paid his taxes on time. Somehow he finds he's now turned into the bad guy.

FAVOURITE SCENES

Each of Foster's encounters with the citizens of Los Angeles is intriguing to watch as his behaviour remains restrained, or goes off kilter, according to the level of rudeness or aggression he receives.

Of all of these encounters, it's probably dropping in for breakfast at 'Whammy Burgers' (a suitably tacky name) which stands out for the biting comments it makes on consumer commercialism. This scene actually gets perilously close to being light-hearted as Foster first objects to the petty policy of stopping the service of certain meals at 11.30 am on the dot, even though the food is still there on the racks. Then there is the miserable tendency to serve up a pathetically skinny burger which doesn't even come close to measuring up to the succulent steak on the advertising billboard.

(It's a great scene, though it does uncomfortably reflect a real incident of a mass shooting which happened at a San Diego McDonald's in 1984).


CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS

This is not a fun film. It's partly a study of a seemingly uncaring society in which city people have to live, where petty rules, social frustrations and antagonistic individuals try one's patience to the limit. More than this, it is a powerful study of a psychological breakdown told through the human encounters which fuel the flames of the breakdown.

Each encounter can also tell the viewer something of his own personal outlook on life - do you rightly condemn Foster for his antisocial violence, and murderous acts, or do you quietly cheer him for the way he stands up to street gangs, Nazi thugs, consumer cons and loud-mouths?

Whatever, it's a film with a difference, and I think it's a film which is well worth seeing.


PLEASE PROVIDE YOUR ASSESSMENT OF THIS FILM

5 out of 5 stars from 1 rating of this film

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PLEASE ADD COMMENTS IF YOU WILL. THANKS, ALUN 12 comments

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Greensleeves Hubs 17 months ago from Essex, UK Author

ladyguitarpicker; Thanks very much. Here in the UK when a murderer or terrorist is identified, the news programmes often carry interviews with old friends who are shocked and disbelieving about how that person has changed from the time when they knew them. No doubt it is the same in America. People - seemingly decent, law abiding citizens - can become antisocial and dangerous; sometimes it is only mental fortitude, or even just good fortune, which can keep them on the right side. Alun


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Greensleeves Hubs 17 months ago from Essex, UK Author

Paladin; First, my apologies for not replying sooner to your thoughtful comment. To an extent I do agree with what you say. Foster is a character whose mental stability was somewhat fractured before the start of this movie, and this is only alluded to in reference to the breakup of his marriage and the loss of his job. The movie essentially shows him only as he passes the tipping point, and his descent brings him to the attention of the police.

But such great changes in a person's character and behaviour tend to be very gradual, and I wonder if a 2 hour film is long enough to show this effectively? As you say it would be extremely difficult. Perhaps a TV drama series consisting of several episodes would be better at showing such a break down in its entirety? In this film, only the final stages are shown, and even this requires a somewhat improbably rapid sequence of half a dozen very unpleasant encounters to bring about Foster's final antisocial acts.

I do agree very much with your comment about the fine dividing line between people who stay on the right side of society, and those who are pushed over the edge. Many of the most fascinating characters in the film world or the literary world, are those whose 'goodness' or 'evil' are not clear cut.


ladyguitarpicker profile image

ladyguitarpicker 17 months ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

Hi, I loved this movie because it had so much truth in it. This happens all the time. Fallen Down, tells the truth how people really can be. Great Hub, Stella


Paladin_ profile image

Paladin_ 22 months ago from Michigan, USA

A good examination of what I consider to be one of Hollywood's most overlooked films.

My main problem with the movie -- and you may very well disagree on this point -- is that Foster's descent was already in progress before the events unfold in the movie to push him the rest of the way. In essence, he had been "falling down" long before the day in question.

I would have much preferred it if his transformation had been more immediate and complete within the scope of the film -- a good person being turned by an overwhelming confluence of events and situations into a criminal.

It would be brilliant to show how fine a line it truly is that divides "normal" people with "normal" lives from those who become lost, and how easily most of us could be pushed over that edge, despite what we may believe about ourselves.

No doubt, it would be extremely difficult to present all that within a two-hour movie. But I'll bet there's some screenwriter and director out there who could pull it off. Until then, we have "Falling Down!"


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thanks Derdriu. Absolutely right. There can't be many top stars who have played such a diverse range of characters, often neither clearly heroic or clearly evil, so often very complex in nature.


Derdriu 5 years ago

Greensleeves Hubs: As is the case with his father, Michael Douglas is one of my favorite actors and producers for reasons which include yours: He is courageous in the films which he backs or appears in. It is impressive that at his level of achievement he does not want to be remembered just as the winner "American President" but also as the "loser" "King of California" who is completely capable of "Falling down."

Thank you for the insightful analysis, voted up, etc.,

Derdriu


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thanks sweetie. With such a big star name as Michael Douglas, I would think it would be available somewhere. Hope you get to see it, because the character of Foster really is quite interesting - decent and correct in his own mind, yet increasingly violent and antisocial in his behaviour.


sweetie1 profile image

sweetie1 5 years ago from India

Very nicely written hub, i hope this movie is available in India.. would love to chk it out


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Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thanx so much for your nice comment Cogerson.


Cogerson profile image

Cogerson 5 years ago from Virginia

Very well written hub.....my favorite scene/line....is at the end when Douglass says...."You mean I am the bad guy"....he was confused until the bitter end...voted up


Greensleeves Hubs profile image

Greensleeves Hubs 5 years ago from Essex, UK Author

Thanks for that. On my list of '100 greatest movies', which I'll probably publish online one day, 'Falling Down' ranks as one of the most poignant.


ahorseback profile image

ahorseback 5 years ago

I liked this movie a lot , it shows the presence ,especially in America , of the unfeeling and mass hollowness encounterable in everyday life here . The reality of this situation is so prevelant , I believe , in today's society..... Sometimes I think that if Americans weren't so overstressed "managing" the worlds bussines everywhere , we could be a more peaceful society .Great job.

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