The Sunday Film Review: Falling Down
Joel Schumacher (1993)
Joel Schumacher directed Batman Forever, a pretty decent (my opinion), if overly camp instalment in the Batman franchise. He later directed Batman and Robin, a not so great instalment that if not quite killed the franchise, left it in a coma on life support for quite a while. Schumacher is the dude who thought a bat credit card joke was a good idea. He later apologised (sort of), but despite this, a little bit of me always freaks out in a bad way whenever I read his name. I know he had notable achievements with the brat pack, but I’ve always thought of Schumacher as kind of like the opposite of film Jesus, a force for the mega rich studios, who places profit above quality, audience enjoyment and all that jazz. Falling Down may have changed my mind on things, probably not quite enough to forgive casting Schwarzenegger as a pun spouting Mr Freeze, but the review is still young. Plot summary time…………
Despite DVD box art and a blurb that focuses on one character, Falling Down is the story of two, middle-American white men. Michael Douglas (the big marquee name the DVD focuses on) plays disgruntled white man William Foster, while Robert Duvall (you know, I’ve yet to see a bad performance from Duvall, brother can act), plays mild mannered white man Martin Prendergast.
One day, in a traffic jam far far away…………
Sitting in stationary traffic pushes William Foster over the edge. Fed up of a life it would be generous to describe as unfulfilling, he decides to show everyone who’s boss by taking a long walk ‘home’, home being code for his terrified ex-wife’s house. Fosters ex-wife, Beth (played with gusto and class by Barbara Hershey) is slightly unhinged, and there’s an interesting question over just how big a threat to her safety Foster poses. But before that gets resolved, Foster has a long trek following the suburban yellow brick road or one dimensional characters to endure. A trek that incorporates encounters with a range of stereotypes: some Latino gangbangers, a crazy neo-Nazi, a South Korean shop keeper with an ‘engrish’ accent, and to head off accusations of racism, a few less racially charged meetings involving road workers, diner workers and retirees on a golf course. Each encounter involves a fair amount of Foster ranting and raving. It’s a bit like watching an American version of Jeremy Clarkson going mental. Oh wait, they already have one of those across the pond. It’s like watching Bill O’Reilly go on a ranting spree, except instead of being inside a studio he’s out on the streets, which would never happen, O’Reilly only leaves Fox studios once every ten years to attend NRA meetings and throw faeces at immigrant children……………..
Moving on from that poorly constructed paragraph, with its poorly constructed political commentary, I JUST DISLIKE O’REILLY SO NONE EXISTENT GOD DAMN MUCH, I SWEAR I’D…………………………
No, shut up, think of Woochi, ah giant rabbits fighting wizards, there Sam, there, everything’s fine, shhhhhhhhhhh, giant rabbits :-)
And we’re back. On the flip side to Angry Foster, we get Content Martin Prendergast, or Content Sergeant Martin Prendergast to give him his full title. Prendergast is one day away from early retirement, which is film code for ‘this character may die if we want a sad ending’. Prendergast is one of those unremarkable men who’s good at what he does, but not flashy enough to be respected for it (kind of like me, except good at what he does). He’s taking early retirement to spend time with his difficult and needy wife Amanda (another classy performance, this time by Tuesday Weld, who achieved my dream of winning a BAFTA for her performance in One Upon a Time in America), but he doesn’t want to admit it to the rest of the force. Not knowing this fact, the majority of the police department label Prendergast as a bit of a coward and while not entirely horrible to him, aren’t exactly respectful or appreciative of his work. This is particularly true of his superior, detective Lydecker (a nice turn by D.W. Moffett). So when Prendergast starts putting two and two together about the possibility of an angry white man going on a bit of a rampage, he’s politely ignored, and later downright mocked.
The exception to the ‘ignore Prendergast’ rule comes in the shape of Detective Sandra Torres (Rachel ‘Total Recall good version’ Ticotin, who successfully turns a very generically written female character into something deeper and more interesting), Prendergast’s former police partner (it gets revealed early that Prendergast was once shot, then never mentioned again), who takes his hunches slightly more seriously. She still lets the others malign and mock him though, so she’s not that good a partner.
And that’s it, the rest of the film is a slow burning progression as Foster treads a path of ever increasing violence and anger, and Prendergast works ever harder to catch him.
Plot summary ends.
There’re a number of things about Falling Down that really impressed me, I will now discuss these things, in no particular order.
Firstly, Falling Down is a character driven story with shades of grey. Yes Foster is going crazy and doing bad things, but he’s also tragic and you find yourself sympathising with him. It probably helps that he doesn’t do anything particularly violent except in reaction to violent behaviour by others, and most of the time he’s up against soft targets (more on that later), but it’s still an interesting route to take. Prendergast likewise is an interesting character, instantly likeable, you find yourself routing for him at the expense of the other cops, which all leads to a fascinating inevitable showdown between the two. Kudos to Duvall and Douglas, they get one scene together and they nail it.
Secondly, as a story, Falling Down is very well paced and executed. With the exception of an unfortunate ‘comedy scene’ involving a rocket launcher and an annoying child actor, nothing grates or feels tacked on. The story progresses logically, carefully building to the inevitable showdown. Something I found interesting; once Falling Down started heading towards the end, I pretty much know exactly how it was going to conclude, but I couldn’t be sure, the story did just enough to make me doubt myself. I felt like a different, more morbid and tragic ending might be on the cards and I watched the last few scenes gripped, just to make sure things ended in a way I considered ‘right’ and satisfying. That’s good storytelling, very good storytelling in fact. Look I’m a cynical creature by nature, so if, after 110 minutes, I’m still emotionally invested enough in your film to want to know how it ends, that’s success, two thumbs up success. Well played Mr Schumacher.
Thirdly, I couldn’t believe when I checked the DVD case (after watching), and discovered Falling Down was made in 1993. I honestly thought I was watching a recent film, something from maybe the last five or ten years. In technical terms, with sweeping crane shots, jerky steady cam, and tight, deep angles, Falling Down was ahead of its time. So ahead of its time, I’m racking my brains as to whether or not Batman and Robin wasn’t a well-made film after all, just poorly scripted, hang on.
………………………. Nope, it sucked, camera work and all.
Speaking of sucking, Falling Down isn’t all sunshine, roses and a happy society of free and equitable exchanges; The soft targets that Foster rants and raves against, they’re about as generic as they come. In a film with two deep and interesting, often tragic leads, the rest of the characterisation is incredibly one dimensional. The neo-Nazi (played with energy but slightly too comically for my tastes, by Frederic Forrest) is a prime example of this, from the moment he’s introduced he starts spouting homophobia and acts like an arsehole throughout. It feels like the story goes out of its way to say, ‘yes Fosters violent, but he’s not a bad guy, look, this is a real bad guy, this guy laughing as he uses racial slurs’. My problem with this is that it really isn’t necessary. As Fosters background gets revealed, his story becomes more and more tragic, he really is a working stiff pushed over the edge, but it most certainly wasn’t neo-Nazis that pushed him over the edge, so there really isn’t a need for such an over the top confrontation to occur. It’s lazy and superficial, it’s a good thing the pacing was spot on, because if any of these confrontations had dragged, then boy would Falling Down have been a boring experience.
This generic one dimensional aspect to support characters becomes a bit more sinister when the racial stuff comes into play. The Latino gang is as clumsy a stereotype as I’ve encountered, and I’m not surprised Falling Down never got released in South Korea. It’s one thing to be lazy in order to focus your efforts on developing one character, but to blunder into race territory and allow your movie to tar an entire group of people could very easily be described as arrogant or even sinister.
It kind of feels like the makers decided on the audience demographic they were aiming for (in this case white middle class men), and then decided the best way to appeal to them was to put them ahead of every other group out there. The poor, the mega rich, minorities, they don’t matter, as long as we get the middle class white vote. It’s a shame, because it taints what is otherwise a really well made, interesting film.
Do I recommend Falling Down? Yes, as a story it’s engrossing and a good example of story/character development. The performances from the leads are strong, and the ending is satisfying. The problem is it’s a film I feel slightly dirty for enjoying. It’s not like it’s an overtly racist or offensive film, I don’t think Mr Schumacher is that type of guy, but the devil is in the detail, and Falling Down may well hold something ever so ominous in its detail.
In conclusion then, no, I do not yet forgive Mr Schumacher for Batman and Robin, I just hope his millions, his good Hollywood standing, his mass of assets and his successes as a director are enough to get him through that.
Written By Sam ‘angered by angry white men’ McKinstrie
Unnecessarily on twitter as McKinstHFP
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