Falling Down was one of the most interesting movies I’ve seen, a strangely lyrical film about violence and desolation in modern society. It’s bleak and yet funny, provocative, and at the same time full of stereotypes. Honestly, I enjoyed it the very first time I saw it and enjoyed it even more watching it with Angela. It’s not a movie for everyone, that’s for sure. But I remember hearing about this movie when it first came out because the Korean American coalition protested its depiction of Koreans in the film. I’ll get to that issue later but in an ironic way, that very protest was what led me to watch the movie in the first place.
I’m a Joel Schumacher fan. I like most of his movies, especially Lost Boys and this one. Yes, he’s had a few clunkers, but who hasn’t? Michael Douglas was perfectly cast in this role as D-Fens “William Foster.” Perfect haircut, perfect shirt and tie, perfect uptight posture. The movie starts with a zoomed up view of his face as he’s stuck in traffic, a parable for the modern condition; wanting to get somewhere, unable to. Regular imagery becomes horrifying in the quick cuts to a guy on his cell phone to Garfield with sharp teeth and children in a bus. It bears similarities to Network’s “I’m mad as hell” moment where D-fens decides he’s sick and tired of being part of a system that doesn’t work and walks out of the car. He’s going home, he tells someone. That trek spirals into more and more violence. First, he just wants a quarter from a Korean liquor store but is unable to get change. When confronted with a bat, he takes it, wracking violence before proceeding onto a park. He is confronted by two Hispanic gangsters who threaten him with a knife because they want his bag. He takes the knife via the bat and in an oddly RPG-like fashion, his equipment gets stronger when a drive-by shooting goes awry and he gets a pack of weapons.
I don’t want to make this a review recapping the plot. What I want to talk about is the interesting way the anti-hero tale gets a retrofit. D-Fens is both likable and despicable. He wades in both areas and says many of the things we feel but are never able to say out loud. There are times we want to sympathize with his desire to be with his wife and child. Then, we see bursts of his temper, even on the old home videos, and know the restraining order was justified. He terrifies the Korean liquor store owner, but pays for his drink. He demands breakfast at a fast food chain while firing an automatic gun into the ceiling, though he leaves everyone unharmed (his anger at the hamburger he receives versus the hamburger on the marketing picture is hilarious and one almost anyone who’s been to a fastfood restaurant can understand). He gets outraged when a racist weapons dealer suggests they have similarities. There is a visually symbolic moment when he sees a man protesting outside of a bank, stating he has been rejected for a loan because he is “Not economically viable.” The man is dressed in the same clothing as D-Fens and when he gets arrested and dragged away, urges, “Don’t forget me,” an eerie reflection. Don’t forget me. The horrors of everyday life have a desperately hopeless root in the desire to have value in a society that wants us to be stuck in traffic on the freeway to nowhere. D-Fens did what everyone told him he should do, getting a good job and trying to be a normal part of society. When everything falls apart, when everything is ‘falling down,’ he responds in the only manner that makes sense to him- with violence. But nothing can keep ‘London Bridge’ up. This all leads him to a tragic epiphany at the climax of the film: “I’m the bad guy?” he asks Robert Duvall’s Officer Prendergast who has been tracking him throughout the movie. It’s a poignantly bitter moment as D-Fens realizes that he’s become the very thing he despises. It’s no wonder Douglas considers this one of his favorite roles. Subdued, and yet consistent with an odd code of honor that often boils over into violence, it’s an incredible performance.
One note I’d like to make is this movie would have to be completely rewritten if made now because he would most likely have had a cellular phone, meaning he wouldn’t have been dependent on payphones which serve as checkpoints for the journey.
Now let’s talk about the racism. Was the movie racist? I think we have to contextualize the question. Was it racist for a reason? Was it trying to spur dialogue? I think the answer is an obvious yes. The writer wrote stereotypes of every race, not just Koreans. In fact, unemployed government defense workers were upset at the portrayal of D-Fens and every race gets an equal blow. At some point, a Japanese police officer played by a Korean actor, Steve Park, gets annoyed when the Korean liquor store mistakes him for being Korean (I also thought it was amusing that the Korean part was played by a Chinese actor). I am reminded of Crash, another movie exploring racism. Were some of the statements in that movie over-generalized? Absolutely. But was that intentionally done so to explore these issues in an open manner? Yes. What I find more important than the question, is it racist, is, does it explore these topics in a manner that forces us to see the questions in a different light? I think Falling Down does. And while I cringe at the horrible English accent from the liquor store owner as well as his stereotypical greed, I still have to give credit to Schumacher and writer Ebbe Roe Smith for trying to say something rather than the usual PC blarney that has made token racial characters a tedious norm. Even if I may not agree with the message or its execution, I still have to applaud the fact that they were trying to say something about race instead of ignoring it entirely.
I guess when it comes down to it, what I really look for in a film is to feel something and provoke questions beyond a, what the hell just happened? Too many times, I come out of a movie and feel nothing other than recollecting a few cool action scenes that I forget the next day. Falling Down is a compelling film because it’s so offensive and brutally honest. Is D-Fens the bad guy or the victim? If he’s the bad guy, who’s the good guy? There are no heroes in Falling Down and that is what makes the movie’s message so horrifyingly mundane and haunting.
I try to post a new film review every week so make sure to check out the blog regularly.