Falling Down is a 1993 neo-noir psychological thriller film directed by Joel Schumacher and written by Ebbe Roe Smith.= The film stars Michael Douglas in the lead role of William Foster, a divorcé and unemployed former defense engineer. The film centers on Foster as he goes on a violent rampage across the city of Los Angeles, trying to reach the house of his estranged ex-wife in time for his daughter's birthday party. Along the way, a series of encounters, both trivial and provocative, cause him to react with violence and make sardonic observations on life, poverty, the economy, and commercialism. Robert Duvall co-stars as Martin Prendergast, an aging LAPD Sergeant on the day of his retirement, who faces his own frustrations, even as he tracks down Foster.
The title of the film, referring to Foster's mental collapse, is taken from the nursery rhyme "London Bridge Is Falling Down", which is a recurring motif throughout the film.
William Foster is an engineer, recently laid off in the early 1990s recession, and under a restraining order keeping him away from his recently divorced wife Beth and their child, Adele. Stuck in a traffic jam Foster abandons his car, planning to walk across Los Angeles to "go home" and attend Adele's birthday party. He repeatedly calls his ex-wife from a phone booth and runs out of change. Police Sergeant Martin Prendergast happens on the abandoned car, helping move it off the road while musing about it being his last day before retirement.
At a convenience store, Foster attempts to break a dollar bill for more phone calls, but the Korean owner refuses and demands Foster make a purchase instead. Foster argues with the owner over the cost of a can of soda when he finds he cannot afford both, and the owner threatens Foster with a baseball bat. Foster takes the bat and destroys overpriced items to scold the owner for his high prices, then pays for the drink while leaving with the bat.
While sitting with his drink, two gang members extort him with a knife, demanding his briefcase as a toll for trespassing. Foster attacks them with the bat and takes their knife. The gang pursues Foster, locating him at a phone booth where they open fire in a drive-by shooting, hitting several bystanders but missing Foster. After the driver loses control and crashes, Foster picks up a dropped gun, shoots the only surviving gang member in the leg, and takes their weapons. At the police station Prendergast receives a report from the convenience store owner describing Foster.
At a Whammy Burger fast food restaurant, Foster becomes angry when they refuse to serve breakfast because it is three minutes into lunch. Pulling out a gun he accidentally fires into the ceiling, terrifying everybody. He changes his mind about ordering lunch, but becomes further annoyed when the burger he is served does not resemble an advertisement. Foster leaves and calls Beth from a phone booth, shooting it after being hassled by someone waiting for it. Meanwhile, interviews describing Foster lead Prendergast to believe it is a one-man crime-spree, giving his description to his ex-partner Officer Torres.
Foster passes a bank where a black man is being escorted by police for protesting a rejected loan application. Foster stops at a military surplus store run by a white supremacist to buy a new pair of boots, where Torres arrives asking questions and describing Foster. The owner diverts Torres away and he offers Foster a rocket launcher, mistaking Foster for another white supremacist after hearing about the Whammy Burger incident on a police scanner. When Foster expresses disgust for the store owner's racism and homophobia, the owner pulls a gun and attempts to turn him over to the police, but Foster wounds him with a knife and shoots him dead with a handgun. Foster changes into army fatigues and boots and takes the rocket launcher, calling his ex-wife again before leaving.
Prendergast takes his information to his superior, Captain Yardley, and is humiliated in front of several officers. Torres joins Prendergast in going to the convenience store to trace the start of the crimes, where Prendergast realises the abandoned car he moved earlier was nearby. Foster's vanity license plate "D-Fens" leads them to Foster's mother.
Foster encounters a road repair crew and accuses them of doing unnecessary repairs to justify their budget. With help from a young boy who mistakenly believes Foster is acting in a movie scene, Foster accidentally fires the rocket launcher, blowing up the construction site. He next cuts through a golf course where an elderly golfer becomes angry at his presence on the private course, and hits a golf ball at him. Foster shoots the golfers cart, causing it to roll into a nearby pond. The ordeal gives the golfer a heart attack, dying unable to reach his medication from the waterlogged cart. Foster then travels through the yard of a plastic surgeon, scaring the groundskeeper, his wife, and children who are using their employer's pool in his absence. The sight of the happy family causes Foster to become emotional, and Foster stops at one last phone booth to call Beth, where he inadvertently reveals he is nearby, prompting her to flee with Adele. Prendergast and Torres visit Foster's mother, where they realize Foster had been fired one month ago and is headed toward his ex-wife in Venice, Los Angeles. They rush to intercept him.
Foster reaches Beth's house as she escapes unnoticed with Adele. Foster watches home movies from his marriage and realizes that they may have gone to nearby Venice Pier, but Prendergast and Torres arrive before he can go after them. Foster shoots Torres, injuring her, and he flees with Prendergast in pursuit.
At the end of the pier Foster catches up to find his daughter happy to see him while Beth is horrified. Foster pulls out a gun and rants about societal sickness, then Prendergast interrupts to note that everyone has that problem, but that is no excuse for Foster's childish violence. Furthermore, Prendergast describes sickness and the sudden death of his own daughter. When police sirens distract Foster, Beth kicks the gun away and Prendergast draws his revolver, demanding Foster to give himself up, accusing Foster of planning murder-suicide. Foster states he would rather die so Adele can inherit his life insurance. Claiming to have another gun, Foster proposes a duel, forcing Prendergast to shoot when he draws, revealing that Foster only had a toy water pistol taken from Adele. Prendergast returns to Beth's house where Captain Yardley praises him in front of the media, prompting Prendergast to respond "fuck you very much" as reprisal for Yardley's disrespect. Torres is taken in by an ambulance and Prendergast comforts Adele, telling her he intends to stay a cop. The film ends with the home movies of Foster's family continuing to play on Beth's VCR.
- Michael Douglas as William "D-Fens" Foster
- Robert Duvall as Sgt. Martin Prendergast
- Barbara Hershey as Elizabeth "Beth" Trevino
- Rachel Ticotin as Det. Sandra Torres
- Frederic Forrest as Nick, Army surplus store owner
- Tuesday Weld as Amanda Prendergast
- Michael Paul Chan as Mr. Lee, Korean store owner
- Steve Park as Detective Brian
- Vondie Curtis-Hall as "Not Economically Viable" Man
- Lois Smith as Foster's mother
- Joey Hope Singer as Adele Foster-Trevino
- Raymond J. Barry as Capt. William Yardley
- D. W. Moffett as Det. Lydecker
- Dedee Pfeiffer as Sheila Folsom, Whammy Burger employee
- Marlo Thomas as KTLA Reporter
Falling Down was being shot on locations in Lynwood, California when the 1992 Los Angeles riots began. By April 30, the riots were sufficiently disruptive to force filming to stop early that day. Film crews produced more footage inside of Warner Bros. Studio in Burbank as the riots continued. By May 4, when the crew intended to resume in Pasadena, initial requests to do so were denied, causing delays. The tension around the riots was something that the filmmakers deemed to have an effect on the finished film. Filming wrapped in late June 1992.
In an interview less than a week before the Falling Down's release, screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith gave his interpretation of what the movie was about. "To me, even though the movie deals with complicated urban issues, it really is just about one basic thing: The main character represents the old power structure of the U.S. that has now become archaic, and hopelessly lost. And that way, I guess you could say D-FENS is like Los Angeles. For both of them, it's adjust-or-die time..."
The film grossed $40.9 million against a $25 million budget. It took the top spot in United States domestic box office totals in its first two weeks of release (February 26-28 and March 5-7, 1993). Falling Down pushed the previous top movie, Groundhog Day, into the second place box-office spot for both those weeks.
Reviews for the film were generally positive. Falling Down holds a 73% "Certified Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 56 out of 100 ("mixed or average reviews") on Metacritic.
Vincent Canby of The New York Times called it "the most interesting, all-out commercial American film of the year to date, and one that will function much like a Rorschach test to expose the secrets of those who watch it." Philip Thomas of Empire magazine wrote in his review of the film, "While the morality of D-Fens' methods are questionable, there's a resonance about his reaction to everyday annoyances, and Michael Douglas' hypnotic performance makes it memorable." James Berardinelli wrote: "Falling Down is replete with gallows humor, almost to the point where it could be classified as a 'black comedy'." John Truby calls the film "an anti-Odyssey story" about "the lie of the American dream". He adds "I can't remember laughing so hard in a movie."
Roger Ebert, who gave the film a positive review at the time of its release, stated of Foster:
What is fascinating about the Douglas character, as written and played, is the core of sadness in his soul. Yes, by the time we meet him, he has gone over the edge. But there is no exhilaration in his rampage, no release. He seems weary and confused, and in his actions he unconsciously follows scripts that he may have learned from the movies, or on the news, where other frustrated misfits vent their rage on innocent bystanders.
Tasha Robinson of The A.V. Club has been critical of the film:
It’s seemingly meant as a sort of dark comedy about the petty annoyances of life, and how they can accumulate and become so maddening that over-the-top cathartic violence seems like the only satisfying option. But Douglas’ violent reaction to his surroundings, and the way the film treats virtually everyone around him as worthless, and presents his violence as the comedic payoff, turns it into a tone-deaf, self-pitying lament about the terrible persecution facing the oppressed majority in an era of political correctness and increasing multiculturalism. In its ugly, skewed world, almost everyone but this madman is dumb, incompetent, and offensive, and his only possible solution is to wipe a few of these losers off the face of the earth, then die. It’s a profoundly hateful film disguised alternately (and erratically) as either tragedy or humor.
The Washington Post writer Hal Hinson observed:
This guy is you, the movie suggests, and if not you exactly, then maybe the guy you're one or two bad breaks from becoming. At one time or another, we've all thought these thoughts, and so when this downtrodden, laid-off, teed-off L.A. defense worker gets out of his car on a sweltering day in the middle of rush hour and decides he's not going to take any more, it comes as no surprise", adding "as he did in Fatal Attraction and Wall Street, Douglas again takes on the symbolic mantle of the Zeitgeist. But in Falling Down, he and Schumacher want to have their cake and eat it too; they want him to be a hero and a villain, and it just won't work.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film four stars out of five, writing:
There's no denying the power of the tale or of Douglas's riveting performance - his best and riskiest since Wall Street. Douglas neither demonizes nor canonizes this flawed character. Marching across a violent urban landscape toward an illusory home, this shattered Everyman is never less than real... "I'm the bad guy?" he asks in disbelief. Douglas speaks the line with a searing poignancy that illuminates uncomfortable truths without excusing the character. Schumacher could have exploited those tabloid headlines about solid citizens going berserk. Instead, the timely, gripping Falling Down puts a human face on a cold statistic and then dares us to look away.
At the time of its release Douglas' father, actor Kirk Douglas, declared "He played it brilliantly. I think it is his best piece of work to date." He also defended the film against critics who claimed that it glorifies lawbreaking: "Michael's character is not the 'hero' or 'newest urban icon'. He is the villain and the victim. Of course, we see many elements of our society that contributed to his madness. We even pity him. But the movie never condones his actions."
Contextually, Falling Down was released in theatres less than one year after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, In them, the targeting of Korean-Americans and their businesses by rioters was a point of fact. The Korean American Coalition and Korean Grocers Association protested the film for its treatment of minorities, especially the Korean grocer. Warner Brothers Korea canceled the release of Falling Down in South Korea following boycott threats. The outcry by the Grocers Association in particular was sufficient to see Michael Douglas meet with members at Warner Brothers Studio because they "were there and they were pissed. So we had a conversation and I told them, ‘Look, I’m very sorry, but there’s a reason the screenwriter picked certain things to put in the film.'"
Unemployed defense workers were also angered at their portrayal in the film. Falling Down has been described as a definitive exploration of the notion of the "angry white male"; the character of D‑FENS was featured on magazine covers, including the March 29, 1993 issue of Newsweek magazine, and reported upon as an embodiment of the stereotype.
Cynthia Hurley, the former wife of Craig Stephen Hicks (the accused in the 2015 Chapel Hill shooting) confirmed that Hicks's favorite film was Falling Down. "That always freaked me out. (Craig) watched it incessantly. He thought it was hilarious. He had no compassion at all," she told the Associated Press in February 2015, just after the shooting that was allegedly committed by Hicks.
Awards and nominations
- 1993 Cannes Film Festival, Nominated for the Palme d'Or (Joel Schumacher)
- 1994 Edgar Award, Won for Best Motion Picture Screenplay (Ebbe Roe Smith)
In popular culture
- The Simpsons would later use Douglas's character as the model for Frank Grimes in the episode "Homer's Enemy."
- The Foo Fighters based their music video for the song "Walk" on the plot of Falling Down.
- The lyrics to Iron Maiden's 1995 single "Man on the Edge" are based on the film.