The first words that Bill Foster says in Falling Down are “I’m going home.”
This theme of a man searching for his home comes up throughout the film. It is of course a basic, understandable, and noble desire: to find a place where we can be accepted and secure. Foster’s goal is not to hurt anyone, it is merely to go home—in this case home being with his ex-wife Beth and their daughter Adele, for her birthday. He wants to reunite his family despite the fact that he and his wife are divorced. As he journeys across Los Angeles from one home to another (his current unhappy home with his mother in Pasadena to his idealized former home with Beth in Venice), Foster crosses into other people’s homes, territories, and privatized spaces.
Over and over Foster encounters people who tell him where he can and cannot go, that he is in a place he has no right to be. He’s told at Mr. Lee’s shop that he is not welcome to stay unless he pays 85 cents for a can of Coke (“You pay—or go,” Mr. Lee snarls, with a dismissive wave of his hand). Next he’s confronted while resting in a vacant lot by two gang members who tell him that he’s trespassing on their private property; later two street utility workers tell him he can’t use the sidewalk in front of him. As Foster walks through a public park he’s told by a seedy guy to give him some money because Foster is encroaching on his territory: “This is my park!” the man yells. Soon Foster is walking across a golf course, where he is once again berated and told to leave by a golfer irate at his presence: “Get off my hole…. This is my golf course!” Foster leaves, climbing a fence into yet another place he’s not welcome: the posh back yard of a plastic surgeon’s home. The one place where Foster is welcomed is an army surplus store—and only because the racist owner, Nick, mistakes him for a racist vigilante like himself. Foster is only welcome there as long as he hides his true self; as soon as he asserts his real feelings and beliefs he is rejected and attacked. (For more on this, see Drew Whitelegg’s article “’Keeping them peeled’: Falling Down, Vision, and Experience in the Modern City.”)
Foster’s search for home, validation, and acceptance are thwarted at nearly every step. He is in a futile search for a meaning or reason for his existence. This theme echoes the struggle of the main character in Ayn Rand’s novel Anthem in which he (unlike Foster) finally realizes, “I am the meaning. I wished to find a warrant for being. I need no warrant for being, and no word of sanction upon my being. I am the warrant and the sanction.”
Foster’s journey is both geographical and emotional; home is not merely a location, it is a nostalgic state of mind. He wants to return to the days when he was happy and employed and married—before economic uncertainly and emotional instability tore his life apart. That nostalgia is shared by Foster’s nemesis Det. Prendergast as well; during the confrontation at the end of the film the two agree that the world is in decay, reminiscing about the good old days before water pollution contaminated the fish. The scene takes place at the end of the Venice Pier—literally and metaphorically the end of the line; there is nowhere else for Foster to go.
At the end of the film Foster realizes that he will not be going home after all. He finally made it home, only to find that there was no home. The home he so desired and spent his day (indeed his life) searching for didn’t exist except as a phantom product of false nostalgia. Beth would not be reuniting with him; his daughter Adele, though happy to see her father, would not be close to him. He was not welcome anywhere else in the city or in the world, and he finally realized that he was not welcome with Beth and Adele either. Home was a mirage, a false promise inherent in the larger lie of the American dream.
Foster is incredulous as he realizes that he somehow transformed from victim to victimizer. “I’m the bad guy?” he asks. “How did that happen? I did everything they told me to… They lied to me.” In response Prendergast asks, “Is that what this is about? You’re mad because you got lied to? Listen pal, they lie to everybody. They lie to the fish.” The irony is that in his confrontation with Prendergast—a man with a gun trained on him who will shortly kill him—Foster for the first time in the entire film finds someone who understands him (or at least his perspective).
In an article titled “Definitely Falling Down: 8-1/2, Falling Down, and the Death of Fantasy” in the Journal of Popular Film and Television, J.P. Telotte notes that unlike Foster, Prendergast “retains the ability to move between the hard, cynical world of the police and the dangerous fantasies and psychoses of the people on the street. He can soothe his wife’s imaginings about a prowler over the telephone, sort out the Korean grocer’s exaggerated account, persuade the Chicana girl Angie to talk about her gang’s guns and describe Bill, prod Bill’s mother to talk about her son as if he were one of her fragile glass figurines, and even draw Bill into a conversation in order to save Bill’s family from his [potentially] homicidal plans. Prendergast is, quite simply, able to understand and deal with the various sorts of fantasies that have become endemic in the world…”
Prendergast validates (and indeed shares) Foster’s understanding about what happened to him, about the unfairness of the economy and life in general. But he appeals to Foster to rise above his disappointment and disillusionment and realize that he’s not the only one: everyone’s hopes and dreams fall short.
Indeed Foster does recognize that he’s not the only victim of the economy and social pathology—others have been hurt too, including the Black protestor at the Savings and Loan, whose phrase Foster repeats as he explains his situation to Prendergast: “I’m not economically viable.” (The “economically viable” phrase is, of course, a dehumanizing corporate banker euphemism for “poor.”) His job has been lost, his self-respect has been taken, and his status as a husband and father have been stripped. In a final, resigned realization Foster recognizes that his only value lies in his own death. Through his life insurance policy he can offer his wife and child the economic viability that he could not provide in life. He has nothing left to offer, so he sacrifices himself by forcing Prendergast to kill him. If Falling Down is the story of an ordinary man at war, the everyday world won and Bill Foster—just like the rest of us—is only one victim.