Falling Down (United States, 1993)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Bill (Michael Douglas) is having a bad morning. He's stuck in his car in a traffic jam, his air conditioner isn't putting out any cold air, his windows won't work, and there's a fly buzzing around his head. Taken as a whole, all of this is enough to make him snap. Just like that, he gets out of his car, leaving it behind in the middle of the road, and sets off for home on foot. His cross-town trek quickly turns violent when he feels his rights as a consumer and citizen are violated, and a number of potentially-lethal weapons fall into his hands. Meanwhile, police officer Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall) is going through a life-crisis of his own. How he deals with it puts him on a collision course with Bill.

Some of the appeal of Falling Down is doubtless the concept that an average, middle-aged, white collar worker can be empowered against the numerous injustices hurled at him by the world. Hopefully there aren't many people out there who will resort to the lengths that Bill goes to, but it gives a measure of vicarious enjoyment to watch him dole out punishment to those that insult, snub, and otherwise aggravate him. These are things that, at one time or another, we've all longed to say and do. Until Bill's actions get too violent, that is...

The first-half execution of Falling Down is effective. In the scene where Bill snaps, we can feel the heat, the tension, and the building rage. When he gets out of the car, it's as much a relief to us as it is to him. The movie's snappy pacing keeps things moving. However, while some of the early scenes with Bill are cathartic, as the violence of his attacks builds and the "righteousness" of his purpose becomes fuzzy, the audience's sympathy for him erodes. Another thing that dissociates us from the character is that we learn that he isn't as normal as we first thought. Bill has some deep emotional problems.

As a counterpoint to Bill, we're given Robert Duvall's Prendergast, who shares many similar traits. He too feels the weight of life pressing down on him and yearns to let out a metaphoric shout. But his rebellion takes a more natural, subdued course. We understand Prendergast more than we feel for him, but that's the nature of his personality. Bill has all the emotional volatility; Prendergast has stability and sanity.

Falling Down is replete with gallows humor, almost to the point where it could be classified as a "black comedy". There are also opportunities for social commentary. Some are overt (such as an incident with the neo-Nazi), but others are more subtle. One of the most disturbing scenes occurs when a young child teaches Bill how to use a grenade launcher, claiming to have learned the lesson from television. Falling Down has several such moments, each of which is uncomfortable because it strikes a nerve.

Indeed, the issues confronted by Falling Down elevate it above the average, brainless shoot-'em-up film. In many cases, the violence isn't just for its own sake. Sure, the viewer who wants to see a tightly-paced thriller with gun-play and emotionally-satisfying moments won't be disappointed, but there is a little more here than simple escapism. Although it takes a number of wrong turns, Falling Down still has the power to disturb.

Falling Down (United States, 1993)

Director: Joel Schumacher
Cast: Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey, Rachel Ticotin, Tuesday Weld
Screenplay: Ebbe Roe Smith
Cinematography: Andrzej Bartkowiak
Music: James Newton Howard
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 1993-02-26
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1