Joel Schumacher’s 1993 film Falling Down upset just about everybody – Koreans, black and Hispanic people, white supremacists, patriots and liberals – which may explain what is so good about it.
In 1976, American cinema had succeeded in depicting the rage modern life can cause – Peter Finch’s electrifying performance in Network when he yells, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!”
Bill Foster, the protagonist of Falling Down, played by Michael Douglas, is one who, following Finch’s instructions, has put his head out of a metaphorical window and started to yell too, about the problems of living in urban America.
Foster is less manic than Finch’s character, but they confront the same problems – economic instability, crime, dysfunction in their personal lives – only Foster, beyond just ranting, exacts more specific revenge.
The action unfolds on a hot day in Los Angeles (art imitating life, as it was filmed during the riots there in 1992), when Foster is trapped in a pointless traffic jam, and the air conditioning in his grim old car fails.
He gets out to walk across the city, determined to reach what he calls home, and his daughter’s birthday party. His marriage is over, his wife has a restraining order on him, so he has moved back in with his mother. In one respect, he is a lunatic; in another, he is an Everyman, since we are encouraged to conclude that the barbarities of modern life can make lunatics of us all.
The Koreans hated the film because Foster abuses a Korean shopkeeper, smashing up his store with the man’s baseball bat, when he refuses Foster’s polite request to change a dollar bill to provide quarters for a phone call. He mocks how the Korean speaks and accuses him of ripping off consumers, another theme from the Network rant. Two Latino thugs then demand Foster’s briefcase on some wasteland, but he hits them with the bat and they flee. Then, after Foster has railed at a beggar who has asked for money from him in a park, the violence escalates.
The Latinos come after him and try to kill him in a drive-by shooting. They manage to wound almost everyone else around him, but Foster is unscathed. The thugs crash their car and only one survives, too injured to walk. Foster arrives, finds a bag of guns, and taunts him before shooting him in the leg to teach him a lesson.
Walking off with the guns, he terrorises a diner that refuses to sell him breakfast five minutes after it has technically finished serving it, and then shoots a white supremacist storekeeper whose racist and homophobic language he has found distasteful.
He eventually finds his wife and child at Venice Beach, with a policeman who is also having a bad day, played by Robert Duvall, closing in. The end is not entirely predictable.
Los Angeles, despite its glamorous reputation, is an unlovely city, and Schumacher succeeded in finding some of its most charmless locations for his shooting.
Falling Down was widely acclaimed by Americans fed up with living in cities characterised by thoughtless ugliness, random violence and fractured relationships.
It is a great film; and although Los Angeles has improved since the Nineties, especially in lessening its reputation for violence, Douglas’s performance reminds us that, even in the most advanced societies, too many people still live on the edge of reason because of what they feel society does to them.