I used to live about three miles from where I worked, which is close enough, although twelve stoplights separated the front door of my house from the front door of my place of business. On the wrong afternoon drive home, the fact that Cain’s first great project after slaying his brother was to build a city seemed the most appropriate thing in the world. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed the thrill of driving a hundred miles an hour, bumper to bumper, on LA freeways. I’ve stood atop the Empire State Building at midnight and known terrifying sublimity. But cities are killer. While the city promises to embrace man and give him a place of permanence, often enough the city is a place of exile. Falling Down is a film about such exile.
I have seen Falling Down twice now, and on a second viewing, it was not the film I remembered. I recalled a film about a man slowly losing his mind. Mental death by a thousand cuts. I remembered Michael Douglas’ William Foster as an everyman who had finally had enough, suddenly deciding to Odyssey back home from I-GK (Gordian Knot), but was waylaid by the impractical and absurd. Tragically, Foster couldn’t withstand the billion tiny demands of the city, and thus the city buried him under her cold, impractical logic.
But that’s not Falling Down by a long shot.
When Falling Down opens, Foster is caught in an LA traffic jam on a sweltering day, trapped within a car with no AC and dysfunctional windows. He is surrounded by the obnoxious décor of other cars— stupid bumper stickers, a bus full of brats, stuffed Garfield toys suction-cupped to windows. Director Joel Schumacher comes back to that Garfield toy a half dozen times, and the thing becomes a little more absurd every time. Who would buy such a thing? To what end? What kind of conversation occurred between the man who bought the toy and his wife while the man was slapping it up? Why do people have no taste? The longer Foster remains in his car, the more ridiculous the situation becomes. To stay in his car would, somehow, implicate him in the absurdity in which he has found himself. He decides to protest the Garfield toy, the bus, the bumper stickers. When Foster emerges from his car with his briefcase and announces he is “going home” to a confused man behind him, he seems the only sane person in a hundred mile radius.
The illusion of Foster’s sanity is quickly broken, though. He walks to a convenience store and tries to get change for a dollar so he can use a payphone to call home, but the Korean owner of the store, in broken English and a thick accent, tells Foster he must buy something. The cheapest thing Foster can find is a Coke, which is eighty-five cents and won’t leave him enough change for the phone. When the owner refuses to lower the price of the Coke to what it would have sold for during Foster’s childhood, Foster grabs a baseball bat and levels a half dozen shelves while delivering a lecture shot through with nostalgia for an American golden age. Any sympathy we might have had for Foster when he protested the city a moment earlier evaporates, and a quickly-confirmed suspicion arises that he is, in fact, the least sane person in a hundred mile radius.
Before the day/his life is over, Foster will run into Mexican gangs and fast food joints which don’t serve breakfast after 11:30, a racist Army/Navy surplus owner and a construction crew needlessly repairing a road which doesn’t need fixing. With each episode, Foster becomes increasingly violent. In the span of an afternoon, Foster goes from fending off 18th Street hoods with a baseball bat to blowing up municipal workers with a bazooka. Between each encounter, he phones his ex-wife and tells her he is coming home, and she tells him isn’t welcome home any longer.
Had Schumacher depicted Foster the way I remembered, there might be some method in his madness. His madness might be explainable. However, Schumacher picks up midway through Foster’s story, and it seems he’s been mad for a long time. Neither is there any scene in the film where Foster’s anger seems justifiable, and while he becomes more violent, by the end, it seems he would have been willing to blow the convenience store to smithereens if only he’d had the right weapon in his hands. Foster is a man who is incapable of distinguishing between dark emotions. He can stand no division between frustration, aggravation, anger, bitterness, ennui, incredulity and seething blind hatred. He has a sloppy soul, which is to say he has an empty soul, betokened by an empty briefcase he inexplicably carries for most of the film, and the empty room he keeps with his mother.
By joining Foster in the middle of his madness, Schumacher refuses sympathy with Foster’s cause. Were the madness slowly brought on, the audience might find themselves joining in with him. Neither is Foster’s hatred intellectualized; his hate is not born out of contempt for the ignorant, as Foster seems a grand ignoramus incapable of acting according to any principle, be it right or wrong. One moment he touts America as a land of freedom, the next moment he condemns a man for using that freedom to charge eighty-five cents for a soft drink. His tirades betray no knowledge of American law or American ideology, and he does not quote books and sermons and speeches to support his anger. He’s not an evil genius, he’s simply evil. Schumacher’s is an apt portrayal of evil, though. In the Middle Ages, even a commoner would have laughed at the notion of “an evil genius,” and told you genius comes by way of virtue and nothing else. Evil is stupid in the classic sense of the word, inasmuch as stupidity has oft been understood as cutting oneself off continually from things you profess you want. Foster is a man who claims he wants to get home, but further exiles himself from that place with every step he takes towards it.
Foster’s foil is LAPD sergeant Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall), a quiet and longsuffering cop trying to make it through his last day on the job. Prendergast slowly begins piecing together stories of violence filtering into the office throughout the morning and into the afternoon, realizing that the same madman has perpetrated them all. Like Foster, Prendergast is also making regular calls home to his wife, a demanding woman who wants an account of every move he makes. The source of Prendergast’s patience is a deeply realized grief over the loss of his young daughter, years ago. He seems to have internalized his sadness and digested it into a kind of anticipation and hope for recompense. Because this world cannot offer such recompense, he has ceased to demand anything of the world and waits tirelessly for a world which can.
In the end, nobody gets what they want, though Foster makes that mysterious journey into the next life to see God face to face and talk of justice, and Prendergast sits on Foster’s front porch talking about a little girl’s birthday party, probably tempted to think the little girl ought to be his own. When Foster’s ex-wife asks Prendergast if she should tell her girl that her father is dead, Prendergast says, “Tell her tomorrow,” and a few grains of sweetness are saved. It’s a vexing, satisfyingly-unsatisfying conclusion to a film about this veil of tears.