Falling Down (1993)
written by: Ebbe Roe Smith
starring: Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey, and Rachel Ticotin
There is a certain time of year that drives a person crazy. For me, it's late winter, when it's still cold and gray, after months of cold and gray. I fall into a kind of reckless, miserable insanity during those drawn out days, nydesperate for a change, any break in the weather. The longer the weather doesn't break, the more insane I feel. The continuous, unrelenting cold grates at me, like squeaking teeth or nails on a chalkboard, until I'm sure I'll break. For some people (perhaps most people), that time of year is the dog days of summer, when stepping outside feels like stepping onto the surface of the sun. The heat beats down on you, crushing you under it's weighty oppression. You're tired, and everything seems horrible, and everything is horrible. And what if you could just do something about it?
1993's Falling Down is certainly a movie that believes that the peak of summer is the worst time of the year. Everyone is at their worst. If it was only a little cooler, everyone would be a little less acerbic and aggravated. But, unfortunately, the heat is terrible and the people are shitty. It's a dangerous combination.
Coming off of Dying Young, which can be so sweet to nearly be saccharine, Falling Down is a hard swerve to the right-- a weird near-satire, almost a black comedy, and simultaneously an extraordinarily ugly presentation of white male resentment and violence. It also felt to me, sitting on my sofa in the last dredges of winter, like a big step forward in Joel Schumacher's filmmaking-- it's particularly confident, featuring cool, controlled camera moves and patient, unshowy packaging. There are takes that really impressed me, in staging and form. The camera work is less shaky than in earlier films, and the action is shot from a more secure, grounded place. Schumacher isn't great at close range action, but the action here is mostly stark violence, and he handles it just fine. There's one particularly nice move that smoothly follows an erratic run down a pier, which I found really cool.
This movie is weird to watch now, in the world we currently live in. It's violent and ugly, purposefully so, and our lead character (essentially unnamed, played by Michael Douglas in a costume straight out of 1962) is a pent up firestorm of white middle-class indignity. He goes through the movie railing against immigrants and the very White feeling that the world is moving forward without him. Toxic, indiscriminate white male rage seeps from his every pore. But Douglas gives a performance so carefully modulated that as much as I despised what this man was doing and how he justified it, I still occasionally found myself feeling sad for him. He is one sick puppy, and while I don't have a lot of inherent sympathy for the type of sick puppy who shoots people or terrorizes his ex-wife, I had some sympathy for this specific sick puppy. I didn't often like that I had that sympathy, but occasionally I did. I still can't decide if that's good or bad.
Watching this on the heels of seeing To Live and Die in L.A. for the first time, I couldn't help but feel a kind of comparison. There's a weird sliding door aspect-- Prendergast, (Robert Duvall, so sweet he's almost out of place) the cop who ends up investigating this trail of violence across L.A, is mere hours from retiring, like William Petersen's partner at the start of To Live and Die. The weird running thread of "cops get shot" in Falling Down got me to expect that Prendergast wasn't going to make it through the film, even though he's perhaps the only good man in the movie and certainly deserved to live and retire. Well, so did Jim Hart. It felt too ominous. Petersen's reckless, vengeful cop could be a variant on Rachel Ticotin's spunky junior partner. They have the same kind of dynamic personal energy to them. Then there's a kind of heat-drench that sits over both films, a desperation that oozes out of the concrete. The traffic backup that Petersen causes in that famous car chase could easily be the traffic that starts off Douglas' rampage. Petersen is such an asshole, and a wild card, and a loose canon-- His violent aggression and imperious sense of moral justice walk a fine line with Douglas' broken and twisted view of what's right. This is a coincidence of timing in my life, no doubt, but there's something real here, for me, and while To Live and Die is a better movie, a shocking powerhouse of a film that basically ruined me forever, and Falling Down doesn't pack quite the same punch, I have a feeling these two films will always be in conversation for me. They both engage with the male ego and psyche in interesting ways. Both take violence at face value and without romanticism, brush against vigilantism, and make you feel pretty shitty about the whole thing. It's a relatively fine line between a perfect, thrilling, painful movie (To Live and Die), and a difficult, purposefully unpleasant movie (Falling Down). What makes the difference for me is that I liked Petersen's asshole cop. He's not the bad guy of his story, though he does bad things and comes to a bad end. On the flip side, I didn't like Douglas' cracked defense worker all that much. He is genuinely bad, and would be the villain of a different movie.
Speaking of the teetering line, the film itself walks that fine line-- it starts out in immediately oppressive heat. The opening sequence is Douglas in his car, caught in traffic, sweating and surrounded by a myriad of irritants. It's too much, he snaps, he gets out of his car and walks away. It's a Big Mood ™ . Here at the start, I was ready to be on his side; I can relate to heat-madness. The whole sequence is an amazing build of tension, with each unpleasant aspect building and tightening in a supersaturated world. You can feel the heat, and the heat becomes a recurring element that layers onto the back of our protagonist. As Douglas goes through his day, hoofing his way towards Home, his day gets worse and worse, and the weight on him gets heavier and heavier. He also goes on a total violent rampage, let's not forget, and along the way he trades weapons from a bat to a knife to a duffel bag full of automatic weapons. It's angry office-worker nightmare turned to eleven. I had stopped being on his side before even reaching that point, but then I was stuck with him.
That opening sequence is pretty remarkable, and things get increasingly surrealistic from there, though they never tip into full fantasia. Too much fantasy would break the tension, and Schumacher keeps this movie tight, tight, tight. But there are strange, haunting elements-- graffiti that reads KILL KILL KILL, a protester declaring himself NOT ECONOMICALLY VIABLE, repeated ideas and lines of dialogue that recur in slightly variant forms from wholly separate characters. There are shots of Douglas that are slightly torqued, slightly off kilter from common reality. Even Douglas's whole look in the movie feels a little surreal-- from his horn-rimmed glasses to his short-sleeve button down, he looks like a relic from another age, let loose in a time period that doesn't have room for him. At the end of the movie, he finds himself in Venice Beach, the most colorful and vibrant locale we've traveled through, and by this point he has changed into an all-black paramilitary type outfit. He is always out of place, a sore thumb in the landscape no matter where he goes. The violence has a surreal quality as well-- most of it takes place without any music, all quiet and still. You watch, waiting for Douglas to hurt someone, the tension ramps up, and then he does. The lack of music takes all the movie-excitement out of it; never are you allowed to enjoy the thrill of violence, like you might in a classic shoot-em-up action movie. It's just sudden and painful and sharp. There's a serious brutality to it and you are forced to confront it. I think this is a good move, overall, but it doesn't make the movie easier to enjoy.
Visually, this one lacks Schumacher's familiar flair. No colors, save for couple brief moments, very little dramatic camera work. Everything is staid and controlled, shot in a hazy orange wash. His control over light is in full swing, and he creates a hot, flat, oppressive scene upon which the more extreme horrors occur. The world isn't heightened, in fact, it's almost actively lowered. It's grounded, more or less, and I think that's part of what makes the movie so rough. It's good and well achieved, and adds to the seriousness of the proceedings, but it makes the entire movie un-fun in every way. As a modern viewer, this plot requires some level of fun and fantasy to be anything other than an increasingly horrifying news reel. The image of a white man with a gun is too real and familiar right now to be enjoyable on it's face. Maybe in 1993 that concept was foreign enough that the movie played with an inherent sense of unreality, but now it's too real. It happens all the time. The movie, to it's credit I really think, doesn't lean into the hoo-rah of the rage fantasy, the kind of fantasy where we as an audience can go, "Yeah good for you! You stand up for yourself! We love this!" That can be done successfully (Rambo comes to mind), but Falling Down actively doesn't do that. It knows from the start that Douglas is a sick puppy, but then can't come down hard to say if that's a very bad thing and he is Bad, or if he's a sick puppy we should feel sorry for.
It all adds up to an unsettling picture. It keeps tripping you up. There's grounding here, but the ground is uneven. Each thing you learn about Douglas, the more off-putting and worrisome he becomes. Trying to stay on his side is hard, especially as you learn more about his history. He's always been an unstable, angry person, we come to learn, and this is the final snap. Schumacher is an intensely sympathetic director, which means that every character in his movies gets soft, human moments, even his villains. It's an open-hearted approach to filmmaking, and one that I really like and admire. Give me texture, conflict and sympathy over simplistic hardness any day. Never is a character in a Schumacher film utterly hard and unloved. I think this makes it hard to have real villains in his movies, and so it goes for Douglas, who perhaps should read more firmly as a criminal who needs to be stopped, despite his clear mental instability. Schu has given us a good hero to root for-- Prendergast-- but can't quite villainize Douglas enough to make this a Cops-and-Robbers type black and white showdown. It's wonderful, of course, to have villains with humanity, who we sympathize for, but in this case Schumacher doesn't find the right balance. I think that's what sits so weirdly for me in this movie-- I can't figure out how I feel, or how I'm supposed to feel, about this guy. A stronger decision from the direction about how to feel might have helped me. For my money, a little more hardness towards Douglas would have been good. I'm willing to follow around a character I know is a Bad Guy. Some very cool movies have the villain as the protagonist. But, again, Douglas doesn't really read as a villain, or isn't presented as enough of a villain. There are too many sympathetic moments that ring of true humanity.
In this case, It's tough, because his crimes are really unpleasant-- he thrashes a convenience store, holds up a restaurant, kills people, harasses and threatens his ex-wife and daughter-- but he's also sortof a... lost soul and a goof. This comes down to Douglas's performance, certainly, and it complicates things. There are moments of sweet near-comedy in the movie. Clearly he's unmoored in the world, lumbering along trying to find something to stabilize him, and along the way he can be nice just as often as not. Most of the people he hurts are bad to him first, in the way that anyone can be on bad behavior once or twice a day, especially to stangers. Somehow, Douglas comes across everyone during their worst moment, and it adds up. But when faced with kindness, he reacts kindly. He's gentle with children and consistently kind to them. He stands up to a literal Nazi who tries to side with him, and it's a heroic moment. He sees himself as a good guy, and sometimes you think, hey, maybe he is. Maybe this is just one very bad day. The movie can't decide to wholly prove him wrong, though his history speaks to the untruth of it. At the end, when he looks at his situation and down the barrel of Prendergast's gun, and says, "I'm the bad guy?" it's a line delivery that almost makes the whole movie. It's so pathetic and so sad. He can't see himself as exactly what he is-- a Very Bad Guy.
I have half an idea that this is a movie, like the best horror movies, that is designed to appeal to our darkest impulses (woudn't it feel good to just walk away from your car? Wouldn't it feel good to stand up to that asshole in front of you in line?) and allow us to engage with them vicariously. Then, we must be reminded of how sick those impulses really are. Where Falling Down falls a little short is that it doesn't do either side of this with complete commitment. Douglas's crimes don't feel good or satisfying to watch-- we can't revel in his actions in even the most base way-- and then the reminder of criminality doesn't hit in a satisfying way either.
The movie ends on a note of heavy sadness and regret. The final moment is spent in a false idea of a happier past, a pleasant moment of Douglas and his wife and child, caught on home video. It's a dream that Douglas had and latched onto, but we know it's not real. In the end, he knew it wasn't real too. It's a poignant, tender ending, but... is that what this movie needs? A sad sympathy for this bad guy? It's hard for me to say. All I can really say is that it didn't sit right with me, and I don't know if I liked it. I know I was impressed by the film overall, at multiple points, but I don't think I would watch it again or even necessarily recommend it to people. It's... interesting, but the world right now has left me feeling a little too raw for this kind of thing. I don't feel any pleasure engaging with this kind of ugliness, and without Schumacher's more heightened sensibilities and surface pizzazz, it really does just feel ugly.
I wonder how this movie played in 1993, and I'm not sure it's possible to imagine how it was viewed then, now. I certainly can't watch it from that same perspective, and I cannot watch it from the perspective of a white male viewer, who is probably more primed to identify with Douglas than I was. I'm willing to give Schumacher the benefit of the doubt here, and say that he purposefully, if not perfectly, made a movie that understands that Douglas is a Bad Guy and we should not root for him. If the movie is a little confused on how to communicate that... so be it. The movie wore me down, in ways-- the unrelenting heat and ugliness, and tension. It's a good movie, a well made movie. I respect it. But I don't think I enjoyed it.
Overall: ★ ★ ★
Schumacherness: ★ ★
Up next: The Client (1994)