One of the biggest misunderstood movies of the past few decades is Falling Down, released on Feb. 26, 1993. On the surface, this movie seems to be about a simple man, Bill Foster (Michael Douglas) who gets enough of people’s intimidation and pushes back. Except that’s not what the movie is really about.
It’s about a maniac who just needs a lit match to ignite him. The movie opens as Bill, or as his personalized license plate reads D-Fens, is sitting in an early morning traffic jam. The heat is unbearable as his air conditioning in his car stops and his handle breaks off as he tries to roll down the window. Frustrated, he gets out and grabs his sport coat and briefcase and tells motorists he’s going home.
Along the way, he stops at many payphones to contact his divorced wife, Beth Trevino (Barbara Hershey) as its their daughter’s birthday. He also runs into a lot of people to fuel his anger. A Korean grocer won’t change a dollar unless he buys something. But the Coke is 85 cents instead of 50 cents. An argument over miscommunication quickly erupts when Bill grabs the grocer’s baseball bat and damages his products for being too expensive in his opinion.
He gets into a scuffle with Latino gang members who later try to gun him down in a drive-by but they get in a bad car wreck instead. It’s at this point, Bill loses all sympathy as he walks up to one of the gang members and grabs his Uzi and shoots the man in the leg, taking a gym bag full of guns with him.
The scuffle with the grocer is understandable but not excusable. The grocer accused him of beating a threat. But why doesn’t Bill just leave? He wants to make a point. And while he could’ve just left, he does damage the grocer’s inventory. He’s no hero. But still he has a moment where it can be easily taken care of by paying for expenses with some probation and community service.
After he shoots the gang member, even though they instigated it earlier, Bill’s rage is finally released. He later bumps into people who don’t show him any reason to be nice. Part of it is his outdated look. With a flat top buzz cut and a short-sleeve white dress shirt and tie, he looks like he should be teaching chemistry in a 1950s-1960s class in the Midwest. The fact that he looks so out of place in 1993 L.A is probably why most people think they can push him around.
But Bill is no pushover. As Beth talks with police after receiving a phone call from Bill, she mentions that Bill was never a violent husband or father, but he could be. When he walks into a fast-food restaurant and they’ve stopped serving breakfast because he’s a few minutes passed the serving time, Bill goes ballistic and pulls out a Tech-9 handgun. The scene is played for laughs but there’s a dark past behind it. On July 18, 1984, James Huberty walked into a McDonald’s in San Ysidro, Calif. and fatally shot 21 people and injured 19 more.
Bill doesn’t kill or shoot anyone in the restaurant because he doesn’t see anyone as an immediate threat. But he sees himself as the one in the right because “the customer is always right.” Yet, ask yourself the question, if someone came into Bill’s workplace and began pushing him around, how would he react? Like most people his age, Bill views people in the service industry as benefit him. He gets mad that he’s supposed to call the cashier and manager by their first name even though he doesn’t know them.
At the same time, there is a retiring detective Sgt. Martin Pendergast who actually has been following Bill’s reign of terror. He’s actually in the same traffic jam at Bill and helps a highway patrol officer push Bill’s abandoned vehicle off of the road noticing the license plate which allows him to later track Bill better. When he speaks to the Korean grocer, Mr. Lee (Michael Paul Chan), he learns about Bill who has his baseball bat. Following the drive-by, Pendergast feels there’s a connection after hearing about a white man with a baseball bat.
Pendergast and his colleague, Det. Sandra Torres (Rachel Ticotin) begin to track Bill’s actions and believe something is brewing despite criticism from their superior, Capt. Bill Yardley (Raymond J. Barry) and colleague Det. Lydecker (D.W. Moffett). Pendergast is also having to deal with constant calls from his wife, Amanda (Tuesday Weld) who wants him to come home. Amanda has some mental problems and is still grieving the loss of their daughter that died when she was young. It’s apparent that the Pendergasts have a rocky marriage.
Pendergast, like Bill, is assumed to be weak. Yardley criticizes Pendergast because he doesn’t swear and it’s obvious that he’s younger and a superior and uses it over Pendergast. Lydecker doesn’t care much for Pendergast either. Torres suspects that Pendergast has been working desk duty to please his wife and is taking an early retirement so they can relocate to Lake Havasu City, Ariz., where the original London Bridge has been erected.
After the fast food restaurant, Bill happens upon a surplus store to get some hiking boots and runs into the proprietor, Nick (Frederic Forrest) who has been listening to Bill’s action on the police scanner. He suspects Bill is a vigilante. Nick isn’t too shy about hiding his sexism, racism, misogyny, bigotry and white supremacy from people. He assumes Bill is just like him.
Ironically, when Nick makes some derogatory comments toward a same-sex couple, he mocks them with the saying that it’s his business and he has the right to refuse service. It’s a complete opposite to before where Bill berated the fast food staff because he was the customer. This presents the problem with our business and service industry. Where does the line have to be drawn? Why does Nick get to refuse service since he’s a business owner but the fast-food staff are seen as rude. Most fast food places work on schedules. And by 11:30 a.m., who is still eating breakfast anyway? Bill wants what he wants regardless.
At the surplus store, Nick and Bill come to a disagreement as Bill doesn’t think he’s like Nick, but he is. Bill just doesn’t know it. He’s rude to Mr. Lee and even assumes he’s Chinese. Like most American men at the time, he’s been blind to the rest of L.A. When he notices a black man played by Vondie Curtis-Hall standing outside a bank protesting because he was refused a loan, it’s an eye opener for Bill. He also tries to get on a mass transit bus but too many people crowd it, he just walks away. Bill hasn’t realized the divide between America at the time.
He is able to stab Nick when he tries to assault him. But here, Bill still has a chance to make things right. Instead, he murders Nick by fatally shooting him. Then, he calls Beth to tell her he’s coming and hints that he will turn more violent if he doesn’t get his way. Bill has finally passed the “point of no return” as he tells her, but he knows he’s going to leave as much destruction in his wake.
He trespasses on to a golf course and when he fights with some elderly rich men, he pulls out a shotgun and threatens them shooting their golf cart which causes it to roll into a nearby water hazard. One of the men has heart attack but his pills were in the cart. Later, he jumps into the backyard of a wealthy plastic surgeon. And he immediately berates a family having a barbecue because he cut his hand on the barbed wire on the fence. His behavior alarms them and the father assumes Bill is with the security and he’s a caretaker for the doctor who lets his family use the pool and patio.
Bill is surprised that the posh house belongs to the plastic surgeon as well as he’s disgusted the golf course was wasted on grouchy old rich men. But the kicker is, this is what America is about. Making a lot of money off the exploitation of others. He’s angry at the fast food workers. He’s mad at Mr. Lee for having high prices. But at the same time, he’s mad that the golf course and the mansions are being used by the elite. But that’s America.
Through investigation by Pendergast and Torres, they learn that Bill has been living with his mother who says he works for a defense manufacturer. However, Bill was fired over a month earlier. Through the interaction with Bill’s mother, they learn that his behavior and rage has been growing inside of him. What makes Bill angry is that he worked a job he thought was going to be more permanent. But even as a man in his 40s, he’s been leaving every day for over a month making pretend he’s going to work. But has he been looking for work? It’s never revealed but my guess would be, he hasn’t. He’s lost his job, his house and his family. While some people would try to rebuild their lives, Bill doesn’t.
Set in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War, working for a defense contractor was a job that was to become obsolete once it was over. While most Gen Xers and Millennials have had many jobs in their adult lives, people Bill’s age at the time (i.e. Boomers) were expecting to have one job or work for one company their whole life. Worse, during the early 1990s, there was a recession so it was hard for many people to find work. When the economy is bad, violent acts rise.
The world has changed, but Bill remains stuck in the past. When he finally shows up in the Venice Beach community he used to live with Beth, he calls her upset that they’ve changed things. Bill, like most white men of the last 30-40 years have been upset that the world has changed because they voted in favor of politicians who allowed golf courses and mansions to flourish while banks became more discriminatory. Credit scores started being used more in the 1980s. This all happened while people like Bill were sitting in jobs they thought were comfy.
Now, that he’s jobless, he’s realized what has happened in the last decade or so. But he doesn’t think he’s the problem. “I’m the bad guy?” he asks Pendergast when they are confronted. Yes, he is. Pendergast is older and has lived through more. He’s part of the Silent Generation, children born and raised during The Great Depression and World War II era. “They lie to everyone,” Pendergast tells Bill.
Like most of people who grew up during the economic boom in the post-WWII era, people like Bill thought it would last forever. President Eisenhower talked about the threat of the military industrial complex in one of his last speeches. It was that complex that Bill worked for. Falling Down was also filmed during the L.A. Riots following the acquittal of the LAPD officers who assaulted Rodney King. You can see a little of the rugged cop attitude of Daryl Gates in Yardley.
Most people assume that Bill is right in the way he acts as he’s just gives back what he receives. But you can gradually see him coming unhinged. And as his mother and Beth tell authorities, it was always there. Bill is the bad guy. He shoots Torres and there’s hints that he will shoot Beth and his daughter if Pendergast didn’t stop him.
In the end, rather than romanticize Bill and his reign of terror, it should be seen as a warning. There are men (and people) like Bill out there every day. All they need is one trigger to set it off. Sadly, what we’ve seen since this movie was released 29 years ago is more people, mostly white men, going on spree rampages and killings. Maybe what’s falling down isn’t the worlds that Bill and Pendergast became use to but the society around us that allowed gang members to flourish as long as they stay in their own neighborhoods while rich old white men played golf on secluded land.
What do you think? Please comment.