We’ve all had those days where nothing is going our way. A rough start in the morning, a bad day on the job and it all culminates to the egregious drive back home. It’s during these days that the average individual is the most irrational, irritable and angry. It’s as if the whole world is conspiring against them, and they decide to be angry back, pouring their hatred and distain upon anyone unfortunate to cross their paths.
William Foster (Michael Douglas) is having such a day. On the drive home, he decides to ditch his car, avoid the escalading frustration of the traffic jam and walk his way home. However, it’s not long before he finds more to get mad about and finally he snaps, beginning a tirade of calculated destruction, fear and panic in his wake. Following his trail is Detective Prendergast (Robert Duvall), who decides to spend his last day on the job putting his nose where it doesn’t belong.
The core strength of the film is its ability to craft two complicated leads to drive the film. William Foster certainly isn’t the most desirable of protagonists, but his neurosis and troubled past make him more sympathetic than the typical psychotic that usually ends up in this kind of film. Prendergast also is more complicated than the aged Boy Scout officer that he initially appears with his own troubled past and personal issues.
Foster’s tirade also becomes a not so thinly veiled social commentary about a great number of issues facing America. From ridiculous inflations, discriminating banks and the flickering of racial tensions, the film uses Foster as a means to explore all the indignities and injustices in the word. While the sentiment occasionally overrides the action, when the film is able to achieve a semblance of equality between the two driving forces, the writing shines.
Screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith crafts a series of events that actually become far more compelling and integral when weaved together than simply a series of unrelated set-pieces. In part, this has to do with how several subplots all come to a head as well as the foresight to set up some tiny elements that come into play later. And while the dialogue has some great zingers, it’s a film story sustained far more on the actions of the characters.
Where the writing doesn’t work is when it tries to become a commentary on the nature of films. Throughout the picture, Foster has been targeting the objects of everything he sees wrong in society, but when the film tries to target other films by having characters talk and behave to say something about the nature of heroes and villains in film, it becomes too heavy-handed, too obvious and too talky.
The film is in a far better place when Michael Douglas and Robert Duvall are simply immersed in the roles of their characters. Douglas finds a fantastic balance between the indignant anger of a working stiff and the cool calculation of a casually violent man. Where he elevates the performance even farther is in his ability to still be sympathetic and vulnerable even amid his violent rampage.
Robert Duvall is also a delight to watch. At first, it seems like there isn’t enough strong writing there to sustain his character, but as the film progresses and his character evolves, Duvall is the perfect candidate for the calm, exemplary cop who isn’t as altogether as he appears on the surface.
Falling Down is both strengthened and undercut by its writing. A little more subtlety and a little less dialogue would have gone a long way into making this film work consistently. However, the strength of the performances, the action driven story and the well written characters make this a fine motion picture and proof that the often ridiculed Joel Schumacher can do a great job when given the right material.
© 2011 James Blake Ewing