Dir. Joel Schumacher / Wri. Ebbe Roe Smith
On its surface, Falling Down is a hard look at two characters dealing with pressures that can only be described as white men problems. It wants to be a serious character study so badly that I only wish I could admire it the same way many others do. But to do so I would have to ignore the film’s misguided injections of satire as well confused intention. Namely, are we supposed to side with the unnamed man played by Michael Douglas or pity him? The film seems to straddle this line, not quite sure where its allegiance lies.
The upside to all of this is that the film is entertaining as hell. At its core this is a dark tale about a guy who’s had a psychotic break. Joel Schumacher, the director, and Ebbe Roe Smith, the screenwriter, have essentially made a part satire, part revenge fantasy that easily makes this film relatable and watchable. It plays on the urban fears of the middle class that might arouse some to cheer, and others–for instance minorities–to wince. Sadly, just being entertaining wasn’t enough to win me over.
The opening of the story sets the tone of the film. The camera pulls out of a close-up on Michael Douglas’s clenched teeth and in a long shot reveals him sitting in his car stuck in a traffic jam. The camera whirls around smoke and parked cars all to the tune of horns and construction. The whole thing feels claustrophobic and charged with the tension. It comes as no surprise when Michael Douglas, whose character will remain unnamed, gets out of his car and walks away. We’ve all felt that urge to do so at one point or another. But to do so essentially means walking away from our lives and going out into the jungle. Douglas is so far out there at the beginning of the film that what follows will hardly shock anyone.
The opening scene is so good and perfectly shot that it makes me want to like the film more. The metaphor of a traffic to hell is great stuff and plays on the unrest we all feel when we can’t take charge of our situation. It’s when the film hits these notes that it really soars into greatness. Just look at Douglas’s character with his buzz cut and dress shirt and tie. He’s an everyman, at least the white middle-class everyman, that we’re supposed to project ourselves onto. He’s recently been divorced, and because of a restraining order, has been barred from seeing his daughter. Everything is bound in tragedy. We’re supposed to sympathize with his character as he treks through Los Angeles on foot on his way to his daughter’s birthday party.
The first stop he makes in his journey is a carryout where he wants to buy a can of Coke. The cashier–who happens to be Korean–tells him it’s 85 cents. Douglas gets angry and demands that he only pay 50 cents. The two get into a fight, ending with Douglas destroying his store with a bat, and then comically paying 50 cents for the Coke, rather than steal money from the cash drawer. Again, there’s the relatable feeling of anger that we all have felt.
But it’s his next stop where the screenwriter takes a wrong turn. Douglas gets into a fight with two Latino gangsters who try to rob him of his briefcase. The gangsters are portrayed with little nuance other than being the bad guys. And what started out as an everyman’s frustration turns into an everyman’s nightmare. It’s also here where the film starts to resemble the noted film Death Wish. Douglas beats up the gangsters with a baseball bat and pockets a butterfly knife. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to cheer for the character, which is a major misstep. What started out a character piece quickly became an excuse for our hero to get revenge on the scum of society. How convenient that it’s the worst bad guys you can think of. The film one-ups this episode, however, when later the gangsters attempt a drive-by shooting at Douglas. Magically, all of their bullets hit everyone around Douglas except for himself. The gangsters get in a crash and Douglas gets to remark over the nearly lifeless body of one that he won’t kill them, only to shoot him in the leg.
It’s at this point that I think the screenwriter should have sat down and asked himself what he was trying to accomplish with mixing Travis Bickle with Charles Bronson. I have an inkling that the angle Smith was going for was to have the Douglas character be a projection of everyone’s worst urban fears. Here’s a man who can’t keep his life together and is now being fucked with by gangsters. In that regard, we’re supposed to see the character as righteous in venting his frustrations. The problem is that instead of being thought to provoke ends up being schlock. For the record, I have no problem schlock, but I do have a problem when it muddles the message the screenwriter so desperately is aiming for.
On a more positive not, Smith has framed the film through two male characters. As the Douglas character is off on his trek through the jungle of LA, we’re introduced to the Robert Duvall character named Prendergast. He’s everything the Douglas character isn’t. He sits behind a desk instead of working on the street, keeps calm in moments of stress, and follows the logic in his decision-making. He’s clearly the good guy and we’re supposed to view the Douglas character’s actions through him. Which means Douglas is obviously insane and breaking the law. Which is what drove me nuts about the film. I’m supposed to see Douglas as the criminal but also supposed to side with him as he takes down gangsters and even at one point a neo-Nazi, who is the only person he kills. The killing is an empty gesture, perhaps to satisfy producers of the film, in justifying Douglas’s vicious psychopath. Unfortunately, it plays off as a conservative’s idea of justice. And again delving into schlock, this time with an over the top bad guy that is the Nazi.
On paper, this might sound like a great character study but to do so would require a deft touch that Smith and Schumacher, unfortunately, don’t provide. Take for instance a scene where Douglas tries to order breakfast at a McDonald’s knockoff. He asks the cute cashier (Dedee Pfeiffer, sister of the other Pfieffer) why he can’t have the breakfast menu–they stopped serving at 11:30–and while he’s doing that she keeps him giving a flirting glance. At first, it’s a comic relief but then after Douglas pulls out an Uzi she still keeps shooting him the glances. The whole scene is played for humor, hammered home by a woman puking as Douglas asks her how the food is. It’s an interesting touch because here we’re supposed to be horrified by Douglas but instead, we’re laughing with him. Yes, there’s the nod to the audience that it’s absurd to not be able to get a certain item because five minutes have passed after the cut-off time. But the whole thing feels muddled. What exactly are we supposed to think about this character?
It’s really not until the end of the film where Smith tips his hat and goes for genuine sympathy with the character. Douglas and Duvall meet for a western inspired stand of on a dock, Douglas clearly lost any sense of sanity. They stare at each other in the eyes as Douglas asks naively, “I’m the bad guy?” No shit you are. It’s a nice touch, but it’s a moment that isn’t earned because Smith has made the line pretty clear that Douglas only kills the absolute worst person he can (The neo-Nazi is a racist, sexist, and a homophobe–talk about subtly). Why would the audience think he’s the bad guy when he’s clearly just having a bad day? The idea is there that we’re supposed to feel this man’s frustrations, but everything is done so bluntly and comically that it makes the whole thing too digestible to really examine what this character is. It’s a film that demands an unobtrusive eye and instead is filmed as a satire that makes caricatures of the bad guys. And that is what knocks it down from being really great. Sure, it’s a fun film. I can imagine there’s a lot of frustrated white men who secretly deep down root for the Douglas character to get his revenge on minorities. More will no doubt nod in approval at the disposal of the neo-Nazi. Schumacher has a comedic streak in him and knows how to generate tension. And boy is this film shot well. But when it needs to turn the mirror on the audience it ends up being a shallow exercise. Taxi Driver this is not.