“Falling Down” is a sizzling portrait of white male rage

Falling Down Michael Douglas in "Falling Down." (Warner Bros.)

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. For July, we honor the chameleonic genre-bending of the recently-passed Joel Schumacher, who embraced camp thrills and pulp trash in equal measure. Read the rest of our coverage here.

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“I’m the bad guy? When did that happen?”

This question, posed by Michael Douglas‘ rampaging D-FENS to Robert Duvall‘s retiring cop in Joel Schumacher‘s 1993 urban drama Falling Down, is as narratively loaded as his stolen Uzi. Since its release, The Discourse(tm) has wrestled mightily with how effective the film’s satire of the angry white man truly is. Does it celebrate its flat-topped protagonist’s one-man war against incivility and corporate greed? Or does it recognize D-FENS as an avatar for the kind of aggrieved, territorial white man who takes out his own budding obsolescence out on the world?

The answer is honestly in the eye of the beholder — questions about as to how useful it is to really examine the mindset of angry, violent white men using ‘economic anxiety’ to exert power over those less privileged than he. But especially now, in an America reeling from renewed conversations about racism, police brutality, and white rage, Falling Down feels suitably armed to help us grapple with the present moment.

Fittingly, Schumacher was filming Falling Down a scant mile or so away from the site of the 1992 LA Riots, which resulted from the ‘not guilty’ verdict of the police officers caught on tape assaulting Rodney King. It was a dark but significant moment in the history of American race relations, as thousands of stores were vandalized, more than 50 people were killed and the town was thrown into a five-day state of unrest. It was the pained cry of a community anguished by its disenfranchisement, which frustratingly had the effect of entrenching white people further into myths about the innate violence of the Black man.

In a 2020 still in the grips of a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, as protestors take to the street to reckon with the death by police of George Floyd and many others before him, Falling Down becomes yet another intriguing challenge for cinema’s ability to make us identify with a protagonist. Is Schumacher’s approach to D-FENS suitably critical? Or (as Roger Ebert’s contemporaneous review suggests) does American cinema’s love of the revenge film prime us too much to identify with D-FENS’ unfettered rage at the suffocation of modern American life? The answer lies somewhere in between, and it’s in the narrative tension of that identification that Falling Down becomes one of the most interesting, provocative works in Schumacher’s filmography.

Falling Down is a film suffused with that heat-soaked tension; you feel it in the opening scene, which nods cheekily at Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 by focusing on Douglas’ unnamed character trapped in traffic, the sun beating down on his Chevette as sweat rolls down his forehead. Schumacher and cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak swings us around all the little annoyances in his immediate vicinity: a young Latina girl staring at him from the car ahead, a school bus filled with bickering kids (the American flag is fittingly draped over it), bumper stickers that practically intimidate him directly with slogans like “How Am I Driving? Call 1-800-EAT SHIT.”

But most fittingly, it’s the Tropic Sun billboard in his field of view that gets special attention, the company’s tagline at the time — “White is for laundry” — practically taunting him.

We don’t yet know why these things bother D-FENS so much, but as his resulting odyssey through LA to reach the home of his ex-wife (Barbara Hershey) and young daughter reveals, these signs feel like provocations. With his flat-top, thick-rimmed glasses, and short-sleeved white button-down, Douglas looks like the very model of 1950s male exceptionalism; he’d fit right in at a NASA control room. In the role, Douglas is magnetic, a perfectly calibrated performance of civility that effortlessly disguises the enraged glee D-FENS gets from exerting such masculine power for the first time in his life.

When he gets out of his car, he declares that he’s “going home.” For a guy like D-FENS, “home” isn’t just where the heart is — it’s the imagined past of a white America where he didn’t have to contend with the existence of people who don’t look or sound like him, when his every whim was catered to and he never had to experience the discomfort of a setback. Simply put, America needs to be made great again.

And with every new encounter, usually with someone poorer or darker than him, D-FENS sets out to right these perceived wrongs, usually at the end of a weapon. Whether arguing with a Korean convenience store owner about the price of a soda, or raging about a Whammyburger’s store policy to not serve breakfast after 11am, Schumacher keeps us firmly in D-FENS’ perspective, giving us just enough objectivity to see what he’s doing wrong while also letting us see the sequence of events that allows him to justify his own incivility.

When he finally realizes he’s the bad guy, we both know why that’s true, but also how he avoided realizing that much earlier. In his mind, he’s finally standing up for himself. But when we see the targets of his knee-jerk bursts of violence, it’s hard not to see it as the flailing reflex of a dying breed: the mediocre white man the American Dream was always seemingly designed for.

Never is this cognitive dissonance more clearly stated than in Douglas’ mid-film rendezvous with the owner of an army/navy surplus store (Frederic Forrest), a man so unabashed in his bigotry he might as well post on Parler. He’s the kind of easy, hissable villain that even D-FENS recognizes as unconscionable, introduced in the film harassing a gay couple patronizing his store.

But he soon smells one of his own in D-FENS, and brings him down to show him his personal stash of personal bazookas and Nazi memorabilia. “I’m with you… we’re the same,” he gleefully says, a statement that disgusts D-FENS. But it’s not until the man breaks his daughter’s snowglobe (and implicitly attacks his masculinity, calling the snow globe “f*ggot shit”) that D-FENS murders the neo-Nazi and takes his stuff. The neo-Nazi isn’t wrong; D-FENS just doesn’t realize it yet.

Falling Down feels suitably armed to help us grapple with the present moment.

In these moments and in all others in Falling Down, Schumacher prods at white male audience’s levels of sympathy for Douglas’ character. The things Douglas rails against — unfeeling corporate policies, gang violence, bureaucratic red tape — are things we all ostensibly oppose and would want to see eliminated.

But as viscerally thrilling as his solutions are in the moment, Schumacher takes care to point out the damage those gestures can do. Families at the Whammyburger are terrified of him waving an Uzi around, D-FENS seemingly oblivious to how dangerous he looks. He turns his nose up at the overt racism of the neo-Nazi, but just a half-hour prior shouts at a Korean man, “You come to my country, take my money, and don’t even have the grace to speak my language?” He fights off a pair of Latino gangbangers who want his briefcase while saying “Look, I wouldn’t want you people in my backyard, either.”

White male rage will always find an excuse to let itself out, while remaining totally blinkered as to where the rage comes from. To the Korean convenience store owner, D-FENS is an angry white man accosting a poor immigrant at his place of business. To D-FENS? “I’m just standing up for my rights as a consumer.”

That disconnect between white and non-white visions of America feels particularly potent in a nation where racial tensions are more visibly agitated than ever. One wonders what D-FENS would have thought about Black Lives Matter protests or the taking down of Confederate statues. Maybe his response would start with the phrase “I’m not racist, but…” In his mind, his grievances come from the same fuck-the-man rebellion as everyone else.

He even identifies with an unemployed Black man (Vondie Curtis-Hall) protesting the bank that denied him a loan and adopts his slogan — “NOT ECONOMICALLY VIABLE.” But we know they’re nothing alike: the Black man is hauled off to jail within minutes for protesting outside the bank’s doors, while D-FENS is a multiple murderer who not only walks away from his crime scenes but is practically treated like a folk hero by some of the cops trying to chase him.

Falling Down is anything but a perfect satire of its sociopolitical targets, especially when Ebbe Roe Smith’s screenplay glances away from D-FENS to show us who he is outside his urban rampage. When we hear about D-FENS from Hershey’s character or his not-all there mother (Lois Smith), we learn of a man who snapped long before he walked out of his car. He’s a delusional misogynist aggrieved at his government for pushing him out of his defense contractor job, an abusive sociopath whose very presence threatens the safety of his wife and child. On the one hand, we see the ways patriarchy arms him with the power to force the women in his life to submit to his will; on the other, it gives a lot of oxygen to D-FENS’ ‘economic anxiety’ as the root of his rage.

As for Prendergast, he’s our window into the procedural search for D-FENS, but seems to care about the case mostly as a way to recover his own virility as a cop. As mild-mannered as he is, he and D-FENS share a dismissiveness of women; see his patronizing treatment of his wife (Tuesday Weld), who’s painted as overbearing and controlling before he finally tells her off and does what he wants to do. Our hero!

To watch Falling Down in 2020 is to recognize that the cauldron of racial tensions stoked by America’s failure to secure justice for Rodney King is still bubbling today. In 1993, D-FENS was a dinosaur raging against the dying of the light, a relic who needed violence to make himself heard. Now, there are millions of D-FENSes, many of whom openly identify with the man on MRA and white supremacist message boards (since satire is lost on the prejudiced and feeble-minded). One arguably sits in the highest position of power in the free world. To them, women and minorities are fine to have around, even useful — as long as they don’t have to hear the word ‘no.’ And they’ll only realize they’re the bad guys until it’s far too late.

Squeezing that critique through the cracked lens of the white revenge film, Falling Down is maybe too incisive for its own good, inspiring its targets as much as it satirizes them. But there’s the rub for a film with such daring moral complexity: after all, it’s only through understanding the mindset of a D-FENS that we can defeat him.

Falling Down Trailer:

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