Falling Down is a powerful and disturbing study of one ordinary man’s descent into insanity fuelled by urban stress. It does not have a happy ending.
It is not a comfortable film, but it is about the way we live now – about what apathy and indifference have done to our values, about how we’ve polarised ourselves and each other. And it provides Michael Douglas with the best and most challenging role of his career.
From his sweaty crew-cut and battered briefcase to the ballpoint pens clipped to the pocket of his short-sleeve white shirt, his is a portrait of a man abused and discarded by society until he is pushed to the brink of madness.
The film opens in the gridlock of a Los Angeles traffic jam. In the sweltering heat, Douglas is one faceless foot soldier in an undistinguishable army of little grey men driven by frustration in an aggravating, infuriating wave of life.
His air conditioner malfunctions. A tension headache builds. Slowly, he begins to crack under pressure and stress.
Abandoning his car in a maze of overheated radiators, he crosses the freeway and makes a run for freedom.
With only a quarter and two pennies in his trousers, he hasn’t got enough change for a payphone, so he stops in a convenience store where the Korean proprietor refuses to give him change without a purchase.
He buys a Coke. It costs 85 cents, which still doesn’t give him enough change to make his phone call . . .
He then goes calmly berserk, reaches for a baseball bat, and smashes up every overpriced item until the arrogant man gives him the Coke for 50 cents and he leaves the shop behind him in ruins. The movie is just beginning.
Minding his own business, Mr Douglas stops to rest in a vacant lot, only to be set upon by a gang of Latino hoodlums. He makes even better use of that baseball bat.
Fleeing for his life, he seeks refuge in a fast-food burger restaurant, where he terrorises the teenage robots behind the counter and the customers because what he ordered does not resemble the attractive and mouth-watering merchandise in the photos on the wall.
By the time a neo-Nazi army surplus store owner (played with terrifying intensity by Frederic Forrest) tells him “We’re the same, you and me”, the whole of L.A. seems to be going bananas with him.
A profile slowly unravels of an unexceptional guy no longer able to struggle to stay sane within the boundaries of normal human emotions.
He’s a person who grew up with rigid, conventional notions about life’s expectations – job, wife, kids, home – now in the dilemma of working-class disillusionment: overeducated, under-skilled, unemployed, divorced and abandoned by his wife, forbidden to see his only child, tired of economic chaos, pollution, burglar alarms and the never-ending sounds of sirens, ambulances and police alarms that remind him every hour he stays alive a new tragedy or a new act of violence is happening in the infrastructure of the concrete jungle around him.
All he wants to do is get home for his kid’s birthday – but life and the city get in the way.
These scenes of sordid desperation are intercut with a parallel subplot about Prendergast (Robert Duvall) – a retiring cop whose last day on the force is ruined because he’s the only one who can piece together the puzzle of Douglas’ identity (from his ‘D-Fens’ licence plate).
Prendergast is an outsider, too – a gentle, compassionate man in a cruel profession, misjudged by his fellow cops and an object of ridicule because he doesn’t curse and he’s bullied by a sick, neurotic wife (Tuesday Weld, shockingly bloated beyond recognition).
The difference is, he’s a better survivor. He’s the resilient one, while Douglas is the one over the wall, but the fact that both men share similar failures in life gives the cop the edge. He uses his empathy and awareness to help track the mysterious vigilante all over the city in his reign of terror.
D-Fens (Bill Foster)
Surplus Store Owner
Guy on Freeway
Ebbe Roe Smith
Michael Paul Chan
Raymond J. Barry