Falling Down

****1/2

Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray

"This is low-key, nervous, twisted stuff, hinting at anger so deeply ingrained it can only erupt in tight, controlled spurts of rage."

It’s not madness that drives Bill Foster (Michael Douglas) to do what he does. It’s life. Nothing adds up. He’s a defence employee. Or was. Nothing makes sense. Any more.

The heat in downtown Los Angeles prickles sweat beads at the base of his neck. He’s held up in traffic, surrounded by strangers and exhaust. It’s like Jesus Christ is laughing up there at freedom’s hunger in a careless world that spits in His face. Or maybe loves Him. Either way, it’s too hot and the cars don’t move.

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Foster walks the hell off. He wanders across the freeway, up a grassy verge. “I’m going home,” he says. He has no home. He lives with his mother in a musty house where the windows are never opened. His mother is afraid of unusual things. Like the doorbell ringing in the middle of the day.

Beth (Barbara Hershey, taut as wire) and Adele live in Venice, close to the pier, in a clapboard bungalow, with a bit of yard outback. Beth is Foster’s ex-wife and Adele his little girl. He can’t go there, can’t see them. The judge has issued a restraining order. “He has this horrendous temper,” Beth says. Not that she knows what it’s like to feel safe. She’s finely tuned, skin stretched by stress, teeth too tight against the lips. Even her body has the lean look of an abused woman. She jumps when the phone rings. She’s made a new life for herself and Adele, but he’s always there in her head, pushing himself against her, against her mind. She picks up the phone. Silence. “I know it’s you,” she says.

It’s so obvious, so right for the times – Middle-aged Man Goes Berserk In Central LA - an evocation of corporate neurosis, redundancy, obsolescence, ruin, trash. You work all your life, glued to the system, and then the system decays and you’re nothing, like you never were, garbage, less than garbage, defecation, shredded remnants of quality codes, living proof that failure has a voice and the voice says, “I’m the bad guy? How did that happen? I did everything I was told to do.”

Foster journeys through the jungle of this sprawling metropolis, where ethnic bandits stash bags of weaponry, where men accost him for big change, where emaciated veterans collapse against kiddies’ slides in the park, carrying signs, saying, “We Are Dying Of AIDS Please Help Us,” where baseball bats are never used for sport, where racism thrives and fairies have their wings torn off, where life is not cheap, but valueless, where the resurrection of the dead would go unnoticed

He’s not crazy. It’s the whole damn thing that’s crazy. He smashes a Korean store because the prices are rip-off thieving insults (“I’m just standing up for my rights as a consumer”). He terrorises a fast-food emporium with a Kalashnikov because the lousy breakfast menu finished two minutes ago and he doesn’t want lunch. It gets worse. The man is a loose cannon.

All he wants is to go to Venice and be with his family for his little girl’s birthday. The end of his tether was way back in that snarling traffic. Now he’s taken the law and knowledge of his own credentials in this scum ugly rat hole of a day into his own hands. There is no opposition. He makes the rules.

Joel Schumacher constructs his film around the carcass of a society that has eaten its entrails. Foster is seen so often from a distance as a solitary figure in cityscapes, too brutalised by poverty to understand the meaning of innocence. He is lonely, lethal and of no importance. A man in a white shirt and tie. Carrying guns.

Parallel to Foster’s breakout, the story of Prendergast (Robert Duvall) unfolds in the neighbourhood precinct. He is a deskbound detective on his last day of duty, with a neurotic wife at home (beautifully blowsy Tuesday Weld) and an uncertain future in retirement, who follows up isolated incidents that begin to indicate the presence of a dangerous man at large. Obviously Foster and Prendergast are destined to confront each other, but before this happens, character must be formed, history researched and degrees of disillusionment shared.

Ebbe Roe Smith is an actor who used to work with Sam Shepard. This is his first produced screenplay and it’s a powerful piece of writing. If Prendergast doesn’t flow as naturally, it’s that certain aspects feel a little forced, especially the relationship with his younger colleague (Rachel Ticotin). With Duvall in the part, however, such reservations dissipate. He has the gift of healing.

The most remarkable transformation is that of Douglas. His interpretation of Foster is nothing less than astonishing. Gordon Gekko in Wall Street won him an Oscar, but that was a glamorous role. This is low-key, nervous, twisted stuff, hinting at anger so deeply ingrained it can only erupt in tight, controlled spurts of rage. You don’t know what to expect, whether to love him or hate him.

Schumacher takes his camera into the streets. The sense of self that marches to a different drummer inside the head of this renegade white collar mercenary is reflected in the degradation of the human spirit as expressed by an architectural wasteland in a city that’s woken from dreaming to discover burglars have been. Although the concept is simple, only in the Prendergast sequences do conventional plot techniques apply. Above and beyond story limitations, Schumacher exposes Los Angeles as a sweltering asylum that toasts the psyche of its inmates and, like Taxi Driver in New York, discovers moral sewage beneath the boardwalk.

Reviewed on: 11 Dec 2008
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Falling Down packshot
One hot day in LA a white collar worker goes berserk in the ravaged ruins of South Central.
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Director: Joel Schumacher

Writer: Ebbe Roe Smith

Starring: Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey, Tuesday Weld, Rachel Ticotin, Frederic Forrest, Lois Smith, Joey Hope Singer, Ebbe Roe Smith, Michael Paul Chan

Year: 1993

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: 18 - Age Restricted

Country: France/US/UK

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