Updated: Feb 25
The final shots of Falling Down (Joel Schumacher, 1993) show family life in tatters. Police comfort the nuclear mother and daughter and patrol the house, which lies abandoned, the trappings of domesticity lain strewn across rooms. On the TV play home videos, memories of happier times, the fantasy of perfect family life presented on the television even as the reality tells a different story. This commentary on the ideology of family and the way media anaesthetises us to the problems of real life, is just one of the many assaults Schumacher’s film launches on problematic aspects of society. Indeed, Falling Down contains some of the most scathing attacks on flawed institutions and everyday frustrations in all of cinema. It skewers tribalism and excess commercialism, false advertising and the abuse of power, the unthinking selfishness of the wealthy and the monotony of life for the working and lower-middle classes. And it achieves all of this while remaining entertaining and without coming across as overly self-righteous or condescending. It simply pulls back the curtain to reveal the unfairnesses and inequalities of life, but doesn’t steep to activism or accusation.
It does this through a dual structure that follows, on the one side, William Foster (Michael Douglas), the estranged father of the nuclear family who is having a really bad day, and on the other Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall), the detective on his final day before retirement, who takes it upon himself to investigate the strange middle-class man rampaging through his city. Both strands are entertaining, and both characters are developed well throughout the film, culminating when the two men meet in a final showdown that has similar beats to that of Michael Mann’s Heat, a film that was released two years after Falling Down, and whose pairing of cop and villain has made more of an impression in the cinematic memory. However, Douglas and Duvall are a superb double-act of protagonist and antagonist, and the respect the two men have for each other and the sorrow Prendergast feels at the breakdown of Foster’s life resonates, perhaps because Prendergast realises that his own life is only a few steps away from a similar catastrophe.
Enhancing the film further though, is the fact that, much like with Heat, exactly who is the protagonist and who is the antagonist here is not entirely clear. Schumacher’s greatest achievement in Falling Down is that we, as an audience, side with Foster even as he acts despicably. He is sympathetic and monstrous, heroic and pitiful. We are with him in his one man mission to tear down the corrupt and prejudicial facets of American life: who hasn’t wanted to hold up a fast food restaurant until they give you something that bears at least a faint resemblance to the delicious burger on their promotional images? And yet we also recognise that he goes too far, that as he progresses further into his breakdown he loses the ability to discern between injustice and innocence, and that during his journey he will end up hurting the very sorts of people he hopes to stand up for – people like him who are just trying to get on with their lives. And of course, you could argue that Foster is not actually coherently thinking about any of this, but rather that he is merely being selfish and trying to assert control over his own life using disproportionate methods. As a parallel for this, Schumacher similarly injects Prendergast with humanity and compassion and sophistication whilst painting the police force he works for as being incompetent, unnecessarily internally combative and toxic, both for its employees and the general public it should be trying to help. Thus, in another stroke, Falling Down pits an individual against the system, showing all its failings as one man tries to actually do something good and catch a criminal before he settles into his retirement.
This focus on individuality overcoming systemic prejudice and a broken societal framework is often criticised for being too simplistic, and an all-too-simple route by which a film can continue to manipulate its audience even as it seemingly calls for change, pacifying the masses by fooling them into thinking good people will prevail. This would be a fair criticism to apply to Falling Down, but it is not really one that I go in for. The harshness and nuance of the attacks on some of the worst parts of society overwhelms the sombre victory of the film’s ending, and besides, people always need to have hope that things can change, and so I think films like this are really important in portraying society’s problems in a way that people can understand and empathise with, while also showing them that there can be a better way. Unfortunately, the criticisms levelled at America in Falling Down are just as relevant today as they were in the early 90s, and so Schumacher’s movie remains important, relatable viewing that can be enjoyed as thrilling entertainment just as much as it can be held up as an example of one of the great American social problem films.
At time of writing, Falling Down is available to watch on Netflix.