Back in 1993, Joel Schumacher directed this paranoid tale of “D-FENS” – a character whose primary concern is to make it back in time for his daughter’s birthday. Along the way, though, this white, shirt-and-tie-wearing everyman discovers his journey is rapidly developing into a personal nightmare: he’s angry (lost his job (engineering weapons for the state)) and everyone he encounters seems to piss him off even more.
Michael Douglas is cast as the man losing his moral balance and being at war with the everyday world. At first we see him sweating in traffic, swotting flies and losing his patience so much that he abandons his car on a busy road and declares “I’M GOING HOME” to the driver behind him.
Next, he heads for the nearest phone box to tell his ex-wife the news. A phone call is simple enough task, you might think; but D-FENS walks into the local deli looking for some change only to be told by the Korean shopkeeper that he must first make a purchase. What’s more, eighty-five cents for a soda doesn’t leave him enough loose coins for the phone call; he’s pissed, goes on some rant about foreigners/immigrants; then proceeds to grab a bat from under the counter and bash every overpriced item in the shop in a fit of rage (as a show of good faith, he pays a self-agreed price of fifty cents for the COKE; then walks off, seemingly unfazed).
As the story unfolds, we are forced to make a distinction between an ordinary man and this “deranged psychopath” he has become. Mid-way through things are taken to a new (hilarious) level when D-FENS pulls a gun on the pompous manager of WHAMMY BURGER (a fast food chain) after he refuses to serve him breakfast for being two minutes past the deadline.
Falling Down could quite easily be pigeon-holed as a black comedy with its often cartoonishly over-the-top scenes of violence. But it’s the balance of intriguing social commentary contrasted with scenes involving Prendergast (Robert Duvall) – a nice-guy desk-cop striving to bring D-FENS in on his last day before retirement – that elevate the film above the illusory mess of “office-dweeb-turned-bad” that it could so easily have been.
A scene involving a lone man protesting he’s “NOT ECONOMICALLY VIABLE” after been refused a bank loan is nihilistic in its tone and reflective of Schumacher/Falling Down’s envisioned doomed-society. There’s an eerie, memorable confrontation between D-FENS and a Hitler/Nazi-loving fanatic in the back of an Army Surplus store that ends in the best possibly way; and I particularly enjoy the Golf course scene every time, which sees Douglas’ character parading across the open green with a shotgun, in camo, with a mean look on his face.
Douglas’ performance here is as real as they come (probably the best thing he’s ever done): his character is a combination of desperation mixed with powerlessness; left alienated, he demands an explanation for his seemingly-unpreventable downfall (with Schumacher wanting us to think that there is a little bit of D-FENS in all of us). What’s interesting is the film’s decision to turn a seemingly ordinary man into an avenging lily-white from a series of counters that exist purely to push him over the edge (SPOILER: quite literally).
D-FENS’ browline glasses are particularly iconic; and meant to symbolic of a society in turmoil. The character sees what he sees close up from behind his big and bulky frames; and when one of the eye pieces becomes cracked at one point in the film, the glasses stay that way for the duration. The glasses are representative of D-FENS’ crossover from a more stable/disciplined period of his life (having a secure job) to being laid off as recession takes hold in the early 1990s.
From being hounded by Latino gangsters to having to listen to people make up stories to try and get money out of him (the sandwich-eating guy in the park), the central character feels real, if not particularly sympathetic. D-FENS’ self-concerned journey to get home becomes illusionary the more he gets caught up in society’s dysfunctionalism and confronted by people of the same struggle. The buildings in the background are mostly seen as crumbling/covered in graffiti and morality on the streets is greatly absent; and they go hand in hand with the character’s rapid decline.
Falling Down is a gripping portrayal of the mental instability that lurks behind every human being. The film focuses upon the individual struggle, tapping into the seedy parts of day-to-day life; whilst reminding us that not every “bad guy” is without motivations for their actions. At the very least, every driver on today’s roads should be able to relate to the moment Douglas’ character decides to blow up a load of road works cause he’s had enough of all the fucking delays…
D-FENS is seen as an anti-hero in a society that wasn’t made for him (“I did everything they told me.”) His existence has become obsolete; his rage is seen as justified; and Falling Down (even in today’s context) remains a relevant – and satisfying – depiction of the angry white male simply existing in a society already rotten at its core from unemployment, poverty/class division, territory disputes, commercialism and corporate greed.
“Take a walk around town. Now that’s sick.”