Falling Down was very much a product of its time. It was set in the early 1990s when America was in the midst of social, economic, and political uncertainty. Jobs were being lost to factories overseas. Racial tensions were in the news (and in fact erupted into the worst riots Los Angeles had ever seen, just days after filming stopped). People who worked hard to achieve the American Dream were realizing that they had been disenfranchised. The rich were getting richer, and everyone else felt left behind.
Many things have changed in the 20 years since the film was released; and many things are exactly the same. The economic uncertainty, fear and insecurity are still very much with us. Corporations got bailed out by the billions while average hardworking people work harder and harder for less and less. Americans are disillusioned and angry. Class tensions are still very much with us; the recent Occupy Wall Street movement (whose slogan is “We Are The 99%”) is only one sign of this outrage. Racial tensions, also, are still part of the daily social fabric, as the current (May 2012) Trayvon Martin shooting case in Florida clearly shows. In that case a common slogan is “We Are All Trayvon Martin”—the clear message is that the majority of people symbolically reflect the (real or perceived) social and economic abuses visited upon the few.
Many of D-FENS’s actions are reactions to a hostile, urban, modern life. Granted, the depiction is overdramatized to make a point, but the cinematic license isn’t drawn too broadly. Such everyday irritations depicted include high prices; road work and seemingly unnecessary construction; traffic congestion; flies; heat; smog and pollution; crime and assault; unemployment; scamming bums, dishonest advertising, and rudeness. We all encounter these annoyances frequently but usually we can avoid letting these things get to us. But just how far off base is D-FENS? Is it only the deranged among our urban masses who react to the daily barrage? At one point, D-FENS says “You want to see sick? Take a walk around this town. That’s sick.” And there is truth in his words. The profound pathologies of our cities and culture is there for all to see. The public’s fascination with sleaze, flashy, meaningless images, and pat, feel-good solutions to complex problems is sick. Evidence of cultural and social decay is all around us. Broken homes. Crack babies. Talk shows. Pauly Shore movies.
Do we accept parts of our culture that we find to be unsavory, or do we react against it, as D-FENS did? I believe that many of us harbor the fantasy of doing just what he did. In traffic jams, I have certainly entertained the thought of bashing my way out, simply smashing the vehicles on all sides until I can get off the freeway.
To understand the D-FENS character we must look at his motivation, what he wants. And what he wants the most basic thing everyone wants: a family. When we first meet D-FENS, he is on his way to his daughter’s birthday party. He does not want to be a vigilante (he states this explicitly), he does not want to avenge anyone; he simply wants to be with his family again. Because of the divorce, and a restraining order against him (although he has never hurt his ex-wife or his daughter), he cannot see Adele on her birthday. It is fitting that the first words D-FENS speaks are, “I’m going home.” These are not the words of a social misfit about to turn psychopath; these are the word of a frustrated, lonely man disenfranchised from his family, his career, and his life.
Over and over, during his cross-city trip from Pasadena to Venice, the same theme recurs. “There should be children playing here. You should have families having picnics,” he berates the golfers on the golf course. D-FENS’s frustration is understandable. His goal is touching, and his idealism honorable. Yet he blithely avoids the harsh reality that he is divorced; he no longer has a family. When he finally accepts that his family will never reunite, at the very end, he is lost.
America and its ideals play a significant role in the film. In several places in the film, the American flag is shown. One of the first things to break in Mr. Lee’s shop is a glass bowl of small plastic flags, which scatter onto the floor. The setting—urban decay in Los Angeles—is a metaphor for the crumbling of the American Dream, the disillusionment that comes from realizing how deep and wide the gulf is between the glossy promises and mundane realities of American life. In his journey, D-FENS goes from the worst neighborhoods to the best, from a small wooden shack across from where gangsters meet him, to a plastic surgeon’s posh mansion. The audience is shown the hypocrisy embedded in a country whose founding principles include the idealistic phrase “All men are created equal.”
As for D-FENS himself, he certainly has bought into the American Dream. His father was awarded a Purple Heart for military service (in Korea, recalling the confrontation with Korean grocer Mr. Lee). He obviously went to college and got a job serving his country making missiles. He does not smoke, drink, or do drugs. Everything about him is conventional, from his haircut to his clothes to his car. Although we are given hints of a possibly stormy marriage, we are told explicitly that he never abused his family. He looks at himself and sees a failure, yet he is at a loss to understand why. What did he do wrong? How can he fix things? The problem is that he is fighting phantoms. His layoff was not due to poor performance or absenteeism. Budget cuts in the late 1980s and early 1990s probably led to his layoff. A family is, among other things, an intrapersonal arrangement, and, of course, it takes two to keep it together. There is no evidence that he is entirely to blame for the failure of the marriage, although we do hear that D-FENS was unreliable about custody after the divorce. D-FENS blames his mother, in fact, for the failure of his marriage. The audience is not given evidence to support or refute this, although the claim seems unlikely.
He has lost his family, and now he has lost his job. He is let go for being “overeducated, underskilled,” or the reverse. In the end, it really doesn’t matter what the details are: He is unemployed. “I am obsolete,” he says sadly and bitterly, “‘Not economically viable.’” In our society, men are closely identified with the type of job they do. It’s one of the first things brought up in a conversation: ’What do you do?’. A job means not only an income, but some degree of prestige and status, not to mention sex appeal. Women tend to be attracted to men with wealth, resources, and status; he has none of those. After seven and a half years at the defense plant, making missiles, he still calls his boss “Mister,” indicating a very formal relationship. No friends, close or otherwise, are mentioned at all in the film. Although we are told that D-FENS could be “possibly violent,” Beth is vague about the nature of his threats. She says he has never hit either of them, but “thinks he could.” It is hard to tell whether or not she overreacts to him, though he certainly becomes menacing in some of his conversations. At any rate, by the time D-FENS walks off the freeway, he is unusually vulnerable to the city’s harms and annoyances. Due to circumstances mostly beyond his control, he has been stripped of his prestige, his power, and his family.
As for the police officer pursuing him, Detective Prendergast experiences many of the same feelings and losses. We do not see as many daily frustrations he encounters, but we can certainly see his problems and pressures. His unstable wife calls continuously to bother him at work, her calls obviously more a demand for attention than anything else. Although he loves her, there is a fair amount of guilt between them; she lost her figure for him (and their child); he gave up being a street cop because she couldn’t handle it. Their one child died from a known but unexplained cause, SIDS. And now he is retiring early for his wife.
His alienation isn’t as bad as it is for D-FENS, but then again he is still employed. But his job has a dark, impersonal side, as seen in his interaction with Captain Yardley. Like D-FENS, Prendergast’s superior barely knows his name, and nothing about him personally. All he knows, or wants to know, is what’s in his personnel file. Here is the exchange with Prendergast in the captain’s office:
Yardley: “Will you stick with the team?”
Prendergast: “No, Captain, I don’t think I will.”
Yardley: “Well, like I said, they make me ask, you understand . . . how are
the kids, by the way?”
Prendergast: “I don’t have any.”
Yardley: “I’d like to take my stick to some of these clerks—the file says—”
Prendergast: “We lost a child.”
Yardley: “Lost it?”
Prendergast: “Her. Lost her.”
Yardley: “Yes, of course. It’s rough.”
Prendergast: “Well, it can be . . . ” (silence)
Yardley: “Still married, right?”
Prendergast: “Yes, sir, I am.” (silence)
Yardley: “Well, that’s good . . . that’s good.”
At the end of this exchange, director Joel Schumacher adds a brilliant touch: a lingering, painful, unnecessary extra few moments. This is the first of two (the other is of Barbara Hershey at the end of explaining her ex-husband’s potential for violence). Duvall is given extra screen time to show his discomfort and alienation. He sits more or less motionless, using just his facial expression and eyes to reveal his alienation and discomfort.
Captain Yardley feels that Prendergast is a disgrace to the police force, because he took a desk job after being wounded. A big, bad, tough cop, we first see him working over his punching bag in his office. He tells Prendergast to “get back behind the desk where you belong” and tells him not to pretend he’s “a cop.” He also states that he doesn’t trust Prendergast because he doesn’t swear. “A real man swears,” he says, getting in his face. Prendergast takes the abuse quietly and passively. At the end of the film, though, he tells the captain, in front of a television camera crew, “Fuck you, Captain. Fuck you very much.”
Both D-FENS and Prendergast are among the walking wounded. They both have family on their minds, and, at the very end, all each of them wants to do is get back to their families. Both have to live in the same city and deal with unstable people close to them. Both men are at a crossroads in their lives; D-FENS faces his second month out of work and his daughter’s first birthday without him. Prendergast is about to reluctantly “watch the cactus grow” in retirement in Lake Havasu, Arizona. Both have noble intentions but are misunderstood by those around them. D-FENS is thought variously to be a thief, a racist vigilante, and a hostage taker. Prendergast must deal with his coworkers and captain, who think he is at his desk job because he was wounded in action, when in fact he did it for his wife’s mental stability.