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

Falling Down

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.


“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 abound 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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Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Spool, as well as one of the founders of the website/podcast Alcohollywood in 2011. He is also a Senior Writer at Consequence of Sound, as well as the co-host/producer of Travolta/Cage. You can also find his freelance work at IndieWire, UPROXX, Syfy Wire, The Takeout, and Crooked Marquee.

  1. Erik says:

    You keep saying ” The White man”. Don’t forget, Defense was very bitter towards
    ” The two old white men on The Golf course” Saying they had ” Nothing better to do”,
    and how the golf course should be for families and children. Defense’s anger comes
    from losing his wife and daughter, a job he put his whole life in. The Korean store guy,
    the gang, the homeless guy in the park, and all the other people he lashes out against,
    are only adding to the anger. When you are not happy in your personal life, everything else around you adds to the anger. If Defense had his job and his wife and his little girl,
    all the other stuff wouldn’t bother him. This is one of my favorite movies of all time and I never viewed it as a white man against the blacks and latinos. It may be part of it. But I view this movie as a man who lost everything he cared about and he had a melt down, and when you lose what you love, society makes everything worse and you have to deal with all the annoying things in your way. When you lose what you love you dont like anything about your life and when you feel you have done everything right and you are cast aside like garbage, it would break your heart. The root of defense’s problem is losing his wife and daughter and a job he put his whole life in. The other things bother him but are just in his way. To quote defense ” I AM NOT A VIGALANTE, I JUST WANNA GET HOME TO SEE MY WIFE AND LITTLE GIRL”. His anger towards prices and koreans not knowing his language, are just annoyances that are made bigger because he is so unhappy.

    1. Adam says:

      I agree. So do many other fans of this movie. Just look at the comments left over its scenes on YouTube. This movie is not about the “white man’s rage.” That’s just an attempt at a modern political ploy. It’s not about race. It’s about a desperate man losing it over the annoyances that people are faced with and pretty much forced to take on a regular basis.

  2. John says:

    Funny how the Clint Worthington conveniently ignores the fact that Douglas’ character explicitly says to the Nazi, “We are NOT the same. I am an American. You are a sick asshole.” So he actually rejects “white rage.” What is more, the Nazi ends up being his first kill in the movie. The thing Douglas hates and rages against is selfish, self-centered assholes who think the world owes them something… whether that be a Korean who shows no appreciation for the opportunities the US has given him, Latin gangbangers picking on people they see as “weak,” a white punk looking for a handout, bureaucrats wasting hard-working taxpayers’ money…

  3. A says:

    I think it can be seem in many ways, but more than anything this film represent the American moralism – be it black or white – of whetting your appetite with a character defying the norm in an open way, all in order to appease your own feelings of frustration at a faulty society, just to point the finger at you later in the film for liking what you have been seeing – as shown by them – through revealing that the protagonist was indeed bad and you have been reasoning “emotionally” all along. Although I find it annoying to read all the time about the white male here and white male there, it is a fact that this character has a real racial problem. He has lived at the center of a society where he has been considered the ideal model so far: father, husband, bread-winner, white guy, engineer, patriotic… Then, just at the period of life where he should be at the peak of his social prominence, as a man in career in the land of opportunity, he is laid off as “obsolete”, a token decision emblematic of the changing of tjr times. His explosion of anger comes all from there. What he would put up with before – the fast food inefficience, the asshole shop owner, etc. – get destroyed because his place in the world is gone. He is a man with nothing to lose – and nowhere to go, as we see once his wife enters the film. The Odissey to return home is part of his madness: he has no home, both in material terms and in imaginary ones, as this alleged home of his is all in his head from the first moment we see him. The first shot of the US flag, becoming a schoolbus full of children (the future he is not a part of) and then an awful traffic jam (look what the American dream has become) seem to say that, in his mind, the ideal of America has been corrupted.
    D-fens is also confronted by a series of doubles throughout the movie. There’s Prendergrast, acting as the counterpart of the honest man, who could take his last day of work easy. He could indeed be as disgusted as the protagonist, a cynical old man at the end of his active days. He is hated by his boss and, with retirement, he has become obsolete too. But he remains the opposite of the man, showing what D-fens could have been if the latter had been the good guy. Prendergrast wants to do the real right thing and he has a sick wife he is responsible for, whereas D-fens terrorizes his ex-spouse and thinks he is on a mission for god.
    Likewise, the conspiracy theorist, the Nazi-sleeping-cell in the shop, confronts the protagonist with what he is really deep-down. D-fens is not doing what he does out of a rightful indignation of what’s wrong in Society, but rather because he has his own idea of where he should be and, conversely, where other people ought to have their place. His killing of this man is just an act of self-denial.
    This way of film-making, though, is neither novel nor moral. D-fens is basically the sex-loving girl of horror movies from one or two decades before Falling Down. They are put there to tickle and titillate us, the viewers, only to be killed not to arouse general indignation and the following banishment of a commercial product. With D-fens we are alloted a modicum of elation by seeing him lash out at the staples of Western consumeristic society, the seats of its hypocrisy, but we are hastily chastized, by revealing us that the character we love so much is in the end a racist, a wife-beater, an abuser, a violent, a psycho, and a villain. This way, the white audience, and maybe part of the black – at least for the non-race-related scenes – can enjoy it for a while. A touch of Hollywood socialism – the rich golfers – helps to greese it fpr a wider audience. And at the end, with the finger-pointing kicking in, the disruption done so far is forgiven, because we know it was all for a bad reason — or rather, only bad reasons will drive you to do this, even if it looks cool at first.
    One last question remains: we loved D-fens at first because we didn’t know he was a racist. The director did, though, since he knew the whole story. So why should the viewers for whom the movie was made be the ones subjected to this scolding, when the makers were the only who knew all along what was coming? Is this the film-maker’s problem or rather the critic’s one? We only gradually get to understand this guy, D-fens, but by the time we do the blame is already on us, as if we had known the story from the first second on.
    This is already what we may call cancel culture.

  4. Jon D. says:

    Awesome movie.
    Unlike crap today, it doesn’t explain “the message”, allowing viewers to take their subjective conclusions. Good guy, bad guy, dellusional, avenger, thug, pick your choice.
    Douglas is an angry man. He was told, like many in his (and following) generations that if he played by the book, marriage, kids, house, decent job, paying taxes and saluting the flag, everything would go well. It didnt.
    He has no purpose, lost it all, and his goal is going to a home it doesn’t exist.
    He tells racist crap? Well, an angry person pulls all the guns. Only a deranged woke could think that in a 50 year old existence he/she never pulled a racist or sexist remark, either to blow steam or to hurt others. Yes, we flawed humans do and say stupid things… we look back and realize that, and try to do better.
    His mirror is the guy with no value, dressed like him, also played by the rules, also got screwed. He empathizes with him… and he is not white. That’s because they belong to same group, or race if you prefer.

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