Falling Down opens with the intensely shot claustrophobic sequence of Michael Douglas stuck in traffic. Full of uncomfortable close ups and an auditory assault, the opening sequence puts you centrally in the experience of a man we only know by his license plate… D-Fens. Having enough, this man just gets out of his car and walks away.
It is pretty clear he is on the edge, and desires to get to his Ex-Wife’s home to see his daughter on her birthday. He starts to run into minor irritations, such as feeling like he is being charged too much for soda or a homeless man asking for money a bit too aggressively. But as things escalate, he angers a local gang. He eventually starts building up a collection of weapons as he carves out a path of “righteous indignation” through the city.
While the authorities do not connect the dots, Detective Prendergast starts to see that these apparently random events are tied to the same guy.
Falling Down was controversial upon release, as it does, on the surface, feed the white grievance attitudes that seemed to have driven some of the workplace shootings that occurred at the time before the film was released. And the ads kind of pushed that narrative. In his first interaction, D-Fens is racist, but it is that racism that we still hear today. He mistakes the ethnicity of the Korean store owner and then rants about immigrants. This is over being charged 85 cents for a can of soda. And when he demands breakfast after the fast food place has stopped serving breakfast, it feels like we are expected to understand his perspective as right.
That said, the film ultimately sides on the belief that D-Fens is, indeed, the villain of the film. In spite of the muddled middle, it is clear he has been in a dangerous state for some time. D-Fens asks Prendergast how he became the bad guy. In a lot of ways, this feels like a stinging indictment of people today. People who spew hate and support cruel ideas are shocked to find out that people do not see them as reasonable good guys anymore. They seem desperate as they see themselves losing power…and do not understand how the life that used to be affirmed is no longer the status quo.
Even though there are some moments that seem to skirt to close to the line of validating the character D-Fens, Falling Down is still a compelling character study. And again, the opening ten or so minutes is cinematic gold. While Schumacher took a lot of heat, Falling Down is a film that proves he had a unique cinematic eye and deserves to be remembered as a respected director.