Film Review - Falling Down (1993)
'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.
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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
William 'D-FENS' Foster
Detective Martin Prendergast
Detective Sandra Torres
Elizabeth Trevino (Foster's ex-wife)
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
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.
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.
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?'
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.
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.
IF YOU LIKE THIS MOVIE ...
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