Cinophile: FALLING DOWN

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“Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying not to lose my head. It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”

So said Grandmaster Flash, but it might as well have been the biography of a day in the life of William Foster. Sitting in sweltering heat on a gridlocked Los Angeles road, he just gives up, gets out of his car and walks away. This would start a chain of events that charts a journey of desperation, madness and a rebellion against the modern world.

Foster is not really that stable. As the movie progresses, we discover things about the character that show he’s been crossing the lines of sanity for a while now. Yet still there is something endearing about the character, something we can all relate to. Sitting in traffic is one thing. Store attendants refusing to simply give change without buying something is another. During his journey Foster lays bare our frustrations against crime, the stupidly wealthy, country clubs and how fast food never looks as good as it appears in the photos. Foster is an everyman about to turn crazy man as he walks towards the home of his ex-wife and their daughter.

Slowly chasing him down is Detective Prendergast, a man with his own complicated and morbid life. He is about to retire from the police force, but not really by his own choice. He is doing to so stay with his wife, a neurotic agoraphobe who cannot get over the loss of their child. His young lover tries to change his mind, despite the callus and uncaring professional career they find themselves in. Prendergast gets no respect, partly because he would rather avoid confrontation than make himself heard. Then he catches the scent of Foster’s slow amble through the urban jungle and the chaos that falls in his wake.

Falling Down is considered by many as Joel Schumacher’s best movie. That says something: yes, Schumacher was responsible for the worst of the Batman movies, but he also directed thought-provoking hits like The Lost Boys and Phone Booth. Yet Falling Down strikes a different chord. It looks at a modern world where meaning is lost and the pressures of society never deliver on the rewards promised. It’s a movie about a society feeling duped and abused. This was more than a little insightful: the infamous Los Angeles riots took place during this movie’s filming.

Today Foster and Prendergast’s entwining stories resonate strongly. Falling Down taps into a type of anger that seems to permeate the air of today’s societies, that same anger that spark service delivery protests, the London riots, the angry mobs in Brazil’s streets. It is true that Foster turns out to be a bit more mental than your average person, but we do catch him on one particular bad day. It’s not hard to imagine that he was once a normal guy like everyone else, with his own collection of quirks and bad traits, but slowly his composure and humanity was eroded away. Certainly the Foster of the first two acts is a guy we can all relate with and only his final downward spiral tends to leave audiences a bit confused.

But that was perhaps the point: it’s all too easy to assume that bad things are done by bad people, not normal people who simply start coping with the world in a bad way. Some critics hate Falling Down for its blatantly obvious message and general lack of subtlety, rolled into a very dark comedy blanket. But some things can’t be said with a few surgical strikes. Some messages require a big hammer. Falling Down‘s brute force remains as fresh and relevant today as it did over 20 years ago.

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The script for Falling Down, written by Ebbe Roe Smith, was rejected by pretty much every movie studio in Hollywood and it nearly became a television mini series instead. But then Michael Douglas read it and loved the story, leading to it being greenlit. Douglas considers this to be his favourite role.
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The song London Bridge Is Falling Down appears several times in the movie, usually sung by one of the characters or referred to during conversation. It inspired the title of the movie. There are also several references to the bridge – the Arizona town where the detective will retire to is home to the original tower bridge, moved there in the Seventies. His retirement cake also features the London Bridge, which is crushed when another detective falls into it.
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Fans of Breaking Bad may notice some similarities between its anti-hero Walter White and the main characters of Falling Down: William Foster and Detective Prendergast. Between them they appear to reflect White’s pushover life and frustrations pushing him towards becoming a dangerous criminal. Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, has said that Falling Down was one of the main inspirations for Walter White and his alter ego Heisenberg.
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Falling Down has been references in several other places. In The Simpsons the once-off character of Grimes, who appeared in an episode of season 8, is based on Michael Douglas’ character. Iron Maiden released a song called Falling Down based on the movie. The Foo Fighters song Walk is also inspired by the film and its music video is a homage to the series of events in Falling Down.

Cinophile is a weekly feature showcasing films that are strange, brilliant, bizarre and explains why we love the movies.

Last Updated: February 9, 2015

James

A total movie glutton, nothing is too bad or too obscure to watch, unless it's something like The Human Centipede. If you enjoyed that, there is something wrong with you. But bless you anyway - even video nasties need love...

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