Viking Night: Falling Down
By Bruce Hall
June 13, 2012
Have you ever opened a time capsule? They're usually kind of lame; filled with the kind of boring trinkets the Chamber of Commerce assumed we future people would find interesting decades out of context. A jar of pomade! A dollar bill! (Apparently primitive humans once traded colored strips of paper for goods and services). Not very interesting to most people, but I'm the kind of guy who finds the writing on the back of an old photograph interesting, so I'll happily pick through the hundred year old box of crap they dug out of the corner of the State Capitol.
That's why I find a film like Falling Down so interesting. You know the one, where Michael Douglas plays a guy who flips out on the 405 one day, and then embarks on the world's most ironic crime spree. You'd think a movie like that would be more enduring. You'd think that as obsessed as we all are with violence, hyperbole and unfortunate stereotypes, Falling Down would still be a pretty popular movie.
But you never hear anyone talking about it anymore. You don't hear about people "Pulling a Foster" and coming to work with a gorilla suit in their briefcase. You don't hear the nerds down in IT dropping quotes from it the way they do with Monty Python, or Pulp Fiction.
Maybe that's because while Falling Down is a better movie than it has any right to be, it is also an unfrozen caveman, making broad generalizations and uninformed statements about a narrow set of variables that belong to a bygone time and place. Its commentary is more forced than funny, more preposterous than prophetic. But I've gotten ahead of myself. I've written my closing arguments first. Even worse, I've gone and tried to apply cogent analysis to a Joel Schumacher film.
So, let's take it from the top.
William Foster (Michael Douglas) cracks up right before our eyes. We see a middle-aged white man in horn rimmed glasses stewing in a good old fashioned southern California traffic jam. As the camera pans around him, we find out almost everything we need to know about him. His haircut is 25 years out of date. There's an American flag in the background, and a telltale parking permit in his window. The sounds emanating from the cars around him hint at unruly kids, immigrants, and loud people on what passed for cell phones in 1993.
A cynic would say you can almost hear society breaking down. A skeptic would say there's no hope, no reason to go on living the same way anymore. Well, Foster is both of those things. So without warning, he steps from his car and wanders across the freeway - off the grid and into a wonderland of insanity. We've all felt like doing this at one point or another, but you and I know there would be consequences.
Foster knows this too. He just gives exactly zero shits about it.
At the same time, grizzled detective Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall) happens to be stuck in his own car about 30 meters away, and he's got problems of his own. Like most movie cops, he's one day away from retirement. Like most movie cops, he blames himself for the death of a precocious child. His wife is a shrill, controlling harpy and because of this, most of his peers think he's a coward. Still, he maintains a Zen-like comportment. He's conflicted about retirement, as though he knows he's destined for great things.
So it's really no coincidence when Prendergast takes it upon himself to help move Foster's car from the road. Their stories remain intertwined until the very end of the film.
Meanwhile, Foster gets himself into trouble at a Korean grocer when he tries to make change for a phone call and ends up taking a socio-political stand by redecorating the place with a baseball bat. It’s a little jarring, and at this point in the movie you can be forgiven for thinking you're looking at a bigoted sociopath. Things get more complex as Foster unleashes a 55 gallon drum of Crazy White Man on a pair of gang members who stop him on his way through the Barrio.