Let’s clear up the elephant in the room – yes, if Michael Douglas' 1993 thriller Falling Down was made now, it would last three minutes.
The cops would ping some mobile phone towers, check the copious street CCTV footage and doorbell cams and D-Fens aka William Foster (Douglas), would be hunted down almost instantaneously.
But it’s this kind of period anachronism that actually makes Joel Schumacher’s drama so interesting to watch in hindsight. It’s actually kind of thrilling (and terrifying) to imagine that someone could mosey across Los Angeles almost uninterrupted, despite stopping off along the way to commit crime after crime (not that he really thinks he’s doing so at the time), on his way back to his estranged daughter’s birthday party.
Yet like so many movies viewed in retrospect, knowing what we now know, Falling Down is both prescient and problematic.
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A quick recap of the plot: a man (his car licence plate is D-Fens, which becomes a nickname to investigating cops Robert Duvall and Rachel Ticotin) sits in traffic, one boiling hot LA day, getting more and more furious. Finally, he can’t take it anymore, abandons his vehicle and starts walking to see his daughter on her birthday.
But as we learn, his wife (Barbara Hershey) has a restraining order against him. And after smashing up a convenience store as well as a confrontation with some gangsters, he continues his journey carrying a bag of guns, waging a personal war against what he thinks are the petty changes ruining America and in particular, his life.
Paul Hirsch, who edited the film (as well as The Empire Strikes Back and many others) also wrote the book A Long Time Ago in a Cutting Room Far, Far Away.
“We can all relate to those irritations,” he tells Yahoo UK now. “The difference is that D-Fens reacts violently. He is all id when it comes to those situations and in a way is acting out our secret fantasies. It's further complicated by the fact that he is being played by a movie star, whom audiences are accustomed to identifying with. It's a fascinating ambiguity. His remonstrances are justifiable, but acting violently is not.”
Watching it now, there are two clear difficulties at its heart. One is that post-Capitol riot, post-Trump, when white supremacists are part of the national conversation, this kind of violent Caucasian man, attacking immigrants and pining for the days when a junk food restaurant didn’t deny him breakfast are recognised (by some anyway) for the dangerous idiots they are.
“The central issue he confronts is how he, a white male who has enjoyed privileges all his life, finds himself suddenly marginalised,” says Hirsch. “The new world he inhabits is bewildering in a sense, and we can all relate to that. I believe he is a forerunner of the Trump voter in a sense. He is angry at the way society is changing and would rather upend everything by striking out.”
Ironically, production of the movie had to be shut down for a couple of days because of the LA riots which broke out in the wake of the so-called Rodney King verdict when a group of white police officers were acquitted despite being caught on video beating up a Black man.
“When they resumed a few days later, Joel told me someone had suggested going to some of the burned-out neighbourhoods and using the devastation as background for D-Fens’ trek across the city,” recalls Hirsch. “Joel refused. ‘I would never take advantage of someone else's misfortune that way,’ he told me.”
During the intervening years, many on the far-right have taken to seeing D-Fens as some kind of vigilante hero, even though the movie’s screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith has said that’s not the way he envisioned the character.
He told The Wrap about turning down an interview with someone who ran a racist blog. “It kind of baffled me,” said Smith, “that they could look at D-Fens as a positive figure, because to me it seems so clear that D-Fens is really messed up.”
But that’s the genius of the film. As Hirsch says, by casting Douglas — an actor both charismatic and happy to flirt with the edges of what makes a hero — the audience’s reaction is complicated. And we can relate to some of the small annoyances he endures, or people being rude. Robert Duvall is really the ‘hero’ of Falling Down, even though Michael Douglas is the star.
In his book, Hirsch remembers that in the first cut of the film, Douglas shot one of the gangsters in the leg before taking their bag of guns. The studio thought that made Douglas look too cold-blooded, so they cut it. But Hirsch says that when they showed both versions to preview audiences, those who saw it without him shooting the gangster felt let down by the ending because they never believed Douglas would shoot his nemesis during their confrontation. By restoring him shooting the gangster in the leg, they did.
“We had laid the groundwork for D-Fens acting murderously and the audience believed he might in fact kill Duvall,” reveals Hirsch.
The problem with what D-Fens wants to achieve is that, as academic Florian Niedlich has said, he thinks none of it is his fault. Instead, they are “consequences of America’s liberal capitalism. The movie maintains that it is this system that is to blame for all the social injustices, inequality and poverty, materialism and the general ruthlessness of all towards all.”
It's exactly what we’re seeing with the culture wars of 2023. Replace the above with ‘woke’ and it’s easy to see how pathetic and facile D-Fens’ complaints are. Yes, Western society is full of these kinds of people now – and many of them are doing very well thank you – but if you were to make a film about them, it’s highly unlikely they would be anything other than a very clear villain. The muddy waters of Schumacher’s take is way too uncomfortable. As Schumacher told The Tech back in 1993, “I think we are a violent culture and there’s a thin line between what’s considered acceptable violence and what’s considered unacceptable violence.”
Perhaps the most striking scene of the movie in this sense is when D-Fens goes to an Army surplus store (ironic considering it’s where a lot of terrorists get their gear) and is lauded by the owner, who is literally a Nazi. D-Fens can’t believe the guy thinks they’re alike and eventually murders him (though seemingly in self-defence).
It’s amazing to watch the sequence now, see the disgust in Douglas’s face as he realises he has become a version of this person he finds so abhorrent. He is, as he says later with incredulity, the bad guy.
It’s unsurprising that the next time we see him, he’s ditched his shirt and tie and is wearing a surplus jacket – he’s transformed into one of those al-right fundamentalists we see on the news having committed some atrocity with feeble reasoning.
When he finally confronts Duvall’s policeman Prendergast, D-Fens challenges him by arguing he’s been lied to.
“They lie to everybody,” replies Prendergast. “That doesn’t give you any special right to do what you did today.”
The second reason why the film feels so removed from today is that it seems highly likely D-Fens is mentally ill. We find out that he got fired a while ago but still gets into his work outfit and drives…somewhere. His briefcase is doubling as a lunchbox. The home movies we see of him and his family are initially sweet, but now they’re terrified of him.
There’s a weird exchange between a beat cop and D-Fens’ ex-wife early on.
“Did he hit you?” the officer asks her.
“No, but he could, I think,” she replies.
“It’s hard to explain.”
D-Fens is clearly coercive and has a propensity for rage. Talking to his wife on the phone, he asks her if she knows that’s it’s legal in some South American countries to kill your wife if she insults you. He’s actively taunting her by the end.
Just before he blows up a road with a bazooka, he challenges the road worker about whether there really is a reason for the roadworks, or whether it’s the city justifying their inflated budget. The guy initially responds that he thinks it’s a sewage problem and D-Fens calls him a liar. It’s only when the worker agrees with him that he’s happy. Some would call him a truth teller – but today we might consider him a crazy conspiracy theorist.
By the time he finally reaches his family, it’s clear he’s had some kind of psychotic break.
Looking at D-Fens now, though he’s obviously disturbed and abusive and it doesn’t excuse his actions, one wonders whether he’s clinically depressed and whether his behaviour might have been different had he been diagnosed and properly treated.
There’s a moment in the fast food restaurant, when he’s accidentally fired his machine gun into the ceiling and is trying to cajole everyone into not being scared of him that he realises he’s crossed a line. If he were more self-aware, more therapeutically adept, would he recognise his actions and hand himself in? That’s part of the conundrum the movie relies on for its dramatic tension.
Falling Down is complicated — at least morally — despite being wrapped in what Schumacher called “some sort of entertainment”.
“I was disappointed that the movie didn't make a bigger splash at the time, but I'm very pleased that it is still being discussed 30 years after the fact,” says Hirsch.
One thing is does prove is that extremism, whatever your motivation, doesn’t work. “Foster is extreme and dies and Prendergast is moderate and survives,” writes Niedlich.
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There aren’t many bona fide movie stars taking the kinds of risks Michael Douglas was prepared to take in the 1990s. And although we are in a post-Sopranos, post-Breaking Bad world, social media has made it more difficult for nuance to be incorporated into our screen protagonists, particularly cinematic ones.
And it’s why were Ebbe Roe Smith and Joel Schumacher to pitch the script that got made three decades ago in 2023, it’s almost certain that the final product would either be thrown out immediately or be vastly different – and likely the poorer for it.
Falling Down is available to rent or buy on digital.
Watch: Catherine Zeta-Jones pays tribute to husband Michael Douglas