Falling Down at 25: why we couldn't resist Michael Douglas's one-man rampage

By The Newsroom
Wednesday, 21 February, 2018, 12:55

"Have you ever heard the expression, the customer is always right?"

Released 25 years ago this coming Monday, Falling Down stands as one of the most distinctive and thought-provoking thrillers of the 90s. A total contrast to the cinematic norms of that time in both protagonist and tone.

Starring Michael Douglas as a seemingly meek, mild-mannered man who goes on a one-man rampage across LA due to an escalating string of frustrations, the movie picked up an ardent cult following.

The main reason for that likely lies in its extreme relatability.

A relatability that makes its anti-hero's exploits impossible to resist, even as things spiral increasingly out of control.

The commuter who cracks

The film begins with an intense bout of claustrophobia on the motorway as Douglas's William Foster - also known as 'D-FENS' (after his personalised number plate) - sits in sweltering heat in gridlocked traffic.

From the ominous, horror-esque music, uncomfortably close shots of Foster's face and surroundings, and his flailing physical tics, we can tell that this is a man on the edge.

Eventually, something in Foster snaps. He gets out, abandons his car, and wanders away in search of solace, and a soft drink.

From the get-go, Falling Down grounds Foster's mental state in a place we can all understand.

Who hasn't wanted to simply give up on the soul-destroying grind of their daily commute, having endured nose-to-tail traffic or crammed trains for weeks on end? The sheer amount of hours of our lives lost to such mundane misery is unthinkable.

'We've all been there', the movie says. And it carries us through with that sentiment for a good while. Even as Foster slips further off the rails.

Mounting mayhem

Over the subsequent hours of Foster's day, mounting frustrations trigger a number of violent outbursts. Most of which are exaggerated, ludicrous responses to everyday annoyances we've all experienced.

He trashes a shop after its owner refuses to give him change to use a pay-phone. He pulls out a gun and accidentally opens fire in a fast food restaurant, after the manager refuses to let him order breakfast because they stopped serving it just minutes before. (When he eventually gets his food, he complains - as most of us have - that it looks nothing like the picture).

Later, he rants at a pair of arrogant golfers at an exclusive club - after one of them aims a drive at him for daring to stroll across their private land.

With the movie presenting these moments through layers of farce, the viewer can relate to Foster's feelings. And may even find themselves cheering him on.

We've all expressed frustration at the prevalence of seemingly unnecessary roadworks. Even if we haven't blown them up with a bazooka.

Falling Down in pop culture

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Homer draws the ire of Frank Grimes in Homer's Enemy (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

Through the character of William Foster, Falling Down has permeated popular culture. The character of Frank Grimes in the classic Simpsons episode 'Homer's Enemy' was partially based on Foster, and the film's plot was the inspiration for a Foo Fighters music video and the Iron Maiden song 'Man on the Edge'.

'I'm the bad guy?'

Yet there is a much darker undercurrent to the film. One that befits a story where racism, economic inequality and mental health issues are all themes that boil to the surface.

In a time when mass shootings by disturbed loners have become a depressing, horrifying and all-too frequent occurrence in the US, it is crucial to view the movie's overall context when revisiting Falling Down.

Though Foster's actions are initially presented through a veil of pitch-black humour, and are sometimes very funny, as the story continues they become increasingly disturbing, erratic and deadly.

Yes, the golfers are portrayed as aggravating, rich old men. But when the protagonist initiates a heart attack in one, and mocks him as he lays dying, it's profoundly uncomfortable.

Foster's shift from unlikely vigilante to unhinged killer is gradual, yet shocking. There are terrible consequences to his rampage. Even at the outset, vandalising someone's livelihood because you're having a bad day is hardly noble.

Foster is a tragic, traumatised figure - but his actions are shocking, despite our sympathy (Photo: Warner Bros)

The film eventually re-frames the man's behaviour with fresh revelations. His wife has a restraining order against him (preventing him from seeing their daughter) due to his violent, erratic behaviour. He lost his job. He has a history of psychological illness.

We feel pity. We understand how someone like him can snap. But that initial feeling of underdog-against-the-world, air-punching euphoria, gives way by the conclusion to a sense of real sadness and horror.

"I'm the bad guy?" asks a crushed Foster, near the end of the film.

Though Robert Duvall's world-weary, regretful cop has sympathy for the man's plight, he assures him that he certainly is.

'A great sadness'

Director Joel Schumacher's CV is eclectic and distinctly variable in quality. But Falling Down may well be his most emotionally resonant film.

Douglas, playing against type, expertly captures a man beaten down by the world and ravaged by despair.

It is a testament to both his performance, and the film's tone as a whole, that he carries us with him for so long despite his catastrophic break down.

Falling Down was controversial in its time. It was accused of racial stereotyping, and of glamourising violence.

But as renowned film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his 1993 review: "It is actually about a great sadness which turns into madness, and which can afflict anyone who is told, after many years of hard work, that he is unnecessary and irrelevant."