Falling Down

Lawrence Russell

Falling Down (1992) dir. Joel Schumacher writ. Ebbe Roe Smith cine. Andrzej Bartkowiak star. Michael Douglas (Foster), Robert Duvall (Pendergast), Frederic Forrest (Nazi), Barbara Hershey (Beth), Rachel Ticotin (Sandra), Tuesday Weld (Mrs. Pendergast), Michael Paul Chan (Mr. Lee)

The rage of the white male made redundant in a multi-racial society and perhaps in the evolutionary movement of civilization... with a healthy dose of morality about the misuse of weapons, especially guns. Michael Douglas as the laid off military weapons engineer/designer -- superb, perhaps his best performance in his best role.

The only thing wrong with this film is the genericism of adding a cop in a shadow role. While there's nothing wrong with Duvall's performance as Pendergast, an L.A.P.D. detective on the verge of early retirement (another redundant white male), it dilutes the purity of Foster's story and gives the drama a television complexion it certainly doesn't warrant.

How am I driving? Eat shit (bumper sticker)

It begins in a direct stylistic homage to Fellini's famous 82. Like Guido the film director, Foster the engineer finds himself stuck in a traffic jam in a "tunnel" -- actually, in this instance, below a freeway overpass. The incident represents his current crisis, where he's "stalled" in his career in a nightmare confluence of machines and human insects. While Guido simply escapes his car (and his phobia) by floating away in an astral projection, Foster -- forever the victim of American realism -- has to abandon his small import and walk away.

Driver: (shouts) Hey where do you think you're going?

Foster: I'm going home.

Thus begins his fatal journey across the under-belly of Los Angeles. In fact, Foster has no home to return to, as he's separated from his wife and daughter and -- as we come to learn -- under a court restraining order to stay away. But, like an Oedipal homing pigeon, Foster heads for the coastal district of Venice. It's his little girl Adele's birthday and nothing will stop him from going "home".

Dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt and tie, wearing dress slacks and packing a briefcase, Foster is the generic white male professional. With his glasses and shirt pocket pens, his demeanor is one of wasp determination and righteous anger. He stops at a seedy corner grocery for a Coke, gets into a confrontation with the oriental proprietor.

Mr. Lee: Drink eighty fi' cents -- you pay or go.

Foster: It's a five... uh. There's a vee in five. What's the matter, haven't they got a v in China?

Mr. Lee: Not China, Korean.

Foster: Whatever. You come to my country, you take my money, you don't even have the grace to speak my language...

When the proprietor comes after him with a baseball bat, Foster disarms him and proceeds to wreck the shop in a funny lesson on price fixing, inflation and banditry. He renegotiates the price of his Coke to fifty cents, then leaves with his first weapon, a bat which is now a club.

His second weapon is acquired when he crosses into a Hispanic neighborhood and is accosted by two Chicano punks. They demand his briefcase as a "toll", and when he demurs, threaten him with a switchblade knife. Using his briefcase and his bat, he sends them running after a brief skirmish -- and pockets the switchblade.

He's moving up on the evolutionary ladder.

He acquires a sports bag full of pistols and automatics when the Chicano gang tries to assassinate him as he's on the phone to his wife. As they roar past, strafing the phone kiosk from their torpedo-back Chevy, they manage to hit innocent pedestrians and shop windows in a grotesque carnage of teenage stupidity and hormonal duplicity. Foster hangs up, picks his way through the bodies, finds the Chevy has wrecked itself against a parked car around the corner. The punks lie sprawled, bloody and broken, automatics on the tarmac.

Now Foster becomes a true vigilante. He shoots one of the punks in the leg before collecting the bag of guns and walking away....

The police are beginning to plot his movements. Mr. Lee from the corner store has filed a complaint and news of the shooting comes in. Detective Pendergast has his problems too: a dipsomaniac wife and a demanding mistress who also happens to be a colleague. And his boss despises him and the boys in the office have filled his desk drawer with sand. Yet withal he's the one who figures out that Foster is the man on the rampage and begins to plot the trajectory of his violent journey across the city and the landscape of Time.

The deterioration of American society is in evidence everywhere. From the decaying buildings and lousy service, to the liars and cheats who panhandle rather than work -- everywhere Foster goes, he's confronted by the rot, the anarchy, the spiritual malaise.

"I reserve the right!"

The hole in his shoe is like the hole in his life. When he enters the Surplus Store, he enters an emporium of Evil which is presided over by a version of what he might become -- a Nazi. Frederic Forrest is outstanding as the proprietor of this museum of surplus goods and war memorabilia. He's been listening to the radio reports of Foster's rampage, quickly recognizes and welcomes him as a kindred white apostle in the fight against gays, blacks, jews, the immigrant hordes... and, of course, the police.

In a preliminary altercation with two browsing gays, the Nazi draws a pistol and expels them from his store with the unconscious pun, "I reserve the right!" He's so far right, he's fringe militia, a white power maniac who gloats over an empty gas can of Cyclon B as if it's a sacred relic. "This was used, man, this was used, " he rasps as he shows Foster his private stash.

Foster now peaks in his weapons evolution: "Heat-seeking fuckin' disposable... I want you to have it." A portable shoulder missile launcher, loaded, ready to go. Why? "'cause you're like me," says the Nazi. But no, Foster is not like him and disputes his bigotry. They fight. The Nazi smashes the gift Foster bought as a birthday present for his daughter (the glass snowball), an act that pushes him over the edge, the final destruction of innocence.

With the determination and nihilism of the truly angry, Foster stabs the Nazi with the switchblade, then shoots him with an automatic. It's self-defence... but it's also an execution. Foster has made that familiar American move into judgement, violence and imperialism. But is he wrong?

He enters wearing a white shirt, exits wearing a black shirt. He enters wearing shoes, exits wearing boots. He enters packing a Tech 9 automatic, exits packing a heat-seeking missile launcher. Now he's a mixed-metaphor, a white champion in a black dress, a victim of history, an evolutionary misfit.

When he uses the missile to clear a way through a street works project, the action is a parody of popular action film and television drama, an absurdity waiting to happen in real life. Instructed by a black kid ("saw it on TV"), Foster sets up the launcher. It fires precipitously, the missile travelling along a trench, eventually blowing up an excavator. Cool. Yeah.

The finale is a clever reworking of the standard cornered criminal routine. The two white men face off as they have so many times in so many westerns and so many cop shows. Duvall faces Douglas, Pendergast faces Foster, two versions of the same past. "I'm the bad guy -- how did that happen?" exclaims Foster as he stands with his back to the railing of the pier, the ocean and infinity. It seems so. He goes for his gun... but now he's armed only with his daughter's water pistol. Pendergast (regretfully) shoots him and Foster topples backwards into the water.

It's suicide -- the preferred choice of those failed by their institutions and their families.

The script writing is brilliant, and the direction never falters. As a social expose of the contradictory state of American values at the end of the century, the film is as relentless as it is honest.

© LR '93/'99


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