by Marc Kandel
A compromised, yet competent look at a sane reaction to an insane world better served had it stuck to its original intentions rather than veering off and trying to shame the audience for identifying with the main character rather than trusting and challenging them.Make way. Bill Foster is going home. Heís tired. Heís tired of waiting in a traffic jam in withering, soul crushing heat and not even knowing why thereís a traffic jam in the first place- only sure that its never a good reason. Heís tired of not kissing his daughter good night and holding her or even wishing her a happy birthday and giving her a present because he has custody and restraining orders blocking him from doing so- pieces of flat paper ruling his life, written by people who donít even know him, under orders of a wife who no longer acknowledges that once upon a time they were in love and were a family. Bill wants to make a phone call- but he canít because heís got no change and the measly can of soda he HAS to buy to get it is overpriced, meaning he wouldnít get enough change from the transaction anyway to complete his simple goal of using a telephone. Bill canít cut across an empty field because its gang turf. Bill canít walk through a public park without being accosted by at least one homeless piece of shit demanding a handout of money Bill worked to earn. Bill canít make a simple transaction, drink a soda, walk from point A to point B, or even breathe without some other denizen of the city, or even the city itself going out of their way to throw a little more fuck-you into Billís day. Billís American dream is over, and heís having none of the nightmare- screw that. Who would? So heís saying Enough. America is just not doing its job anymore, not keeping its promise, so heís casting it aside. Heís done. Heís going home, and Clear. A. Path. Because Billís got bats, barrels, blades, bullets, bombs, and a briefcase that will let every miserable shit in his way know just how serious he is about reaching his destination.
"Whitey Kill! (ooooh, cheap shot, but you laughed anyway, didnít you?)"
Amen. I hate people. I hate when they are too close to me, in my way, acting stupid, taking advantage of others, bullying, sniveling, ass-kissing, doing badly, doing well, doing nothing, doing everything. And guess what- they hate me for the exact same reasons. And we all put up with each other every day because those are the rules and thatís what you do. So how refreshing to see a film where we get to see a man taking it upon himself to step outside of the norm and flat out refusing to take a big bite of the shitburger that is life. Me, I remember very clearly when I saw this film- it was the day of the first bombing at the WTC- the 1993 one that we didnít bother with payback on- perfect time to see it, right? New Yorkers pretty much ignoring the whole thing, too busy milling around being their typical charming asshole selves, police choppers everywhere, plumes of smoke from downtown, wet, nasty heat steaming off the streetsÖ yeah, back before Sept. 11 you could have considered that a wonderful, pre-gentrification atypical day in the tail-end of the Dinkins-era NYC. God Bless.
I loved this movie, wept more than once as it played, and totally understood and supported the motivations. But still I was left just a bit flat as the credits rolled, and only as time passed did I figure out why- the movie switches away from his portrait of Bill as the everyman pushed past reason by societal inequities and pressures, and rips the audienceís perceptions and beliefs in him to shreds for no other reason than to bring this movie back to ďsafeĒ territory by going against the filmís bold starting choice and instead making him a deeply disturbed, psychotic lunatic undeserving of our sympathy, support, or his reflection of ourselves despite the filmís laborious efforts to make the viewers do these very things in touching, intelligent, visceral and humorous ways for over 3/4ths of the running time. Over the years this has pissed me off more and more as I have ruminated on it. I should have seen it as a sign then that further work from director Joel Schumacher would be similarly tainted with bullshit, though there's probably plenty writer/studio shenanigans that Iím sure came into play in this instance, so here I wonít lay it all on his doorstep as the film still achieves great entertainment value. But this flaw in the film is immensely frustrating and continues to rankle me to this day in repeated viewings.
Now that is not to say that Bill Foster carries 100% audience sympathy- he is a justifiable terror to his ex-wife (Barbara Hershey), he has evidently made his timid mother feel horribly threatened and afraid (another sickeningly false reveal that goes against the grain of the character we come to know), and by the end of the film, Bill is so confused, torn and frustrated that he is a very real danger to his family- but this transformation occurs throughout his journey that the audience witnesses on screen- we are present, and we have context. Thatís fine- I can accept that. My problem is when the tone and intent of Douglasís character is changed as suddenly we come to be told in what I think to be a very stupid, contrived manner, "oh, well he was crazy all along- This is nothing new, and certainly not justified." Turns out Billís crazier than a shithouse rat- heís been out of work for months, yet driving to and fro each day with a packed lunch and a briefcase- so we are just seeing more symptoms, not the real cause.
We suddenly discover that we missed the whole transformation. Jekyll was Hyde long before we sat down or the credits rolled. Our downtrodden everyman hero who makes a split-second choice in an intolerable situation is just a typical postal whacko that flew of the handle a looong time ago and is just right now choosing to up the ante. Urban suffocation doesnít make lunatics- lunatics are just lunatics. I hated that. The lay-off from work is a perfectly reasonable trigger, but why place it far in the past, making Bill a certifiable well before the movie begins, a la Kubrickís choice for Jack Torrance in ďThe ShiningĒ? As if his inability to keep his family together isnít enough? Give him the moment. Make a choice, a statement. Show some fucking balls people. Stand by your protagonist. Donít cower behind the Retroactive Insanity placard. I could have dealt with it had he lost the job that morning, or even still had the job, which instead of becoming his last tie to normalcy, could have been the pointless, mindless paperwork that just could not substitute life for him, but to just ignore his clear purpose in the moment and replace it with a continuation of a breakdown the audience is not privy toÖ Itís wrong, its bad storytelling, and its unfair to the character we have been accompanying.
I adored the start of the rampage- our entry point into this maddening world- the conscious, spontaneity of looking at the traffic, the cluster fuck of the mewling pinhead masses, the rudeness, the noise, the heat, the dead eyes of his fellow motorists and just stepping out of the car/coffin and making the decision right then and there that "This is wrong. Fuck all of this. I am going home." That was brilliant. Douglas was suffocating in that car, his heart was bursting with the lowness of it all, idiots and their children are staring blankly back at him, screaming on their cell phones, laying on their horns, letting their abrasive bumper stickers announce their obnoxious personalities for them, the typical moron reactions we all know, and he just makes that beautiful choice to tear his way out right then and there- that was wonderful.
Diluting the purity of that flat denial of putrid middle class drudgery just to let the audience know that ďThis is not a normal human beingís reaction- donít be like him- its badĒ was fucking weak. It cuts off the character we have come to know at the knees. Cheap. I wanted to be right there, in the thick of it, right at the break. I thought I was with Bill at the beginning of his journey. I thought I understood him. I was tricked. Turns out I should have never understood him, never sympathized with him, and shame on me for doing so. Itís a lame, smug morality device built in to upend the audience, dressed up as some ďchallenge their presumptionsĒ high and mighty horseshit. Itís a total, nutless cheat, and I think itís the moment that really stops the film from achieving lasting greatness. Because frankly, Bills ďcrazyĒ is more intelligent, witty, rationalized and touching than most fucktards I deal with on a daily basis whose claim to sanity is tenuous at best, as are their pretensions to an IQ scoring above 12.
The really frustrating thing is that there was no need for this drivel. The audience is already provided two contrasting points of view by other characters in the film that should have been entrusted to balance the tale without stooping to a foolish half minute disclaimer scene. One is the aforementioned Barbara Hershey, playing Billís ex-wife, who lives in perpetual fear of her former husband, not from any actual act perpetrated by him, but from her instinct that there is some danger lurking within him that needs only the right stimulus to emerge, played with desperation and unease by Hershey, a great performer and performance continuously overlooked due to her ability to vanish into this and other films so seamlessly. The other is Detective Martin Prendergast, played with warmth, sadness and savvy by Robert Duvall in another overlooked role filled with complexity and soul.
Martin Prendergast is Bill Fosterís brother in torment by degrees. Prendergast is not exactly the most respected guy on the force. He works the desk more than the field, after an unspecified incident where he was evidently shot. Heís taking early retirement and moving to Arizona with his wife. Nobody seems to care about his life outside his desk- if they took the time, they might find out he once had a daughter- like Billís she is lost to him for different, but equally sorrowful reasons. His wifeís simpering nagging and his acceding to it has reached legendary status around the office and his fellow police delight in making him the butt of their jokes. His own Captain, a head of hair and 30 years past being the playground bully, holds him in the lowest contempt as a quitter and a wimp. His adoring (yet chaste) partner (Rachel Ticotin) canít understand why he would continue to live under the roof of his beast of a wife, or why he would hang it all up when she believes him to be underneath the ďnice guyĒ exterior a good cop and an even better man. And maybe Martin doesnít quite understand it all himself, but he knows thereís a right way of doing things and a wrong way. Maybe all the frustration and feelings of inadequacy prompt him to see some connections in a case he doesnít need to take on his last day on the force, putting him on a collision course with a man that has crossed lines he has somehow painfully treaded all his life. And maybe, just maybe, itís not too late to make some changes.
This is just as much Prendergastís tale as it is Fosterís, and it is through Prendergast that we are given a more controlled, rational reaction to societyís inequities and ways to rise above it and trump them. I wish the film had relied more on this character as the moral center than its irritating moral justification plot twists. Duvall is just wonderful. Heís a put upon, awkward guy- the kind who laughs good naturedly with the crowd though they are only there to beat him down. But make no mistake- heís also crafty, and his gentle exterior belies the intellect, strength and will underneath.
Nobody talks about this performance from Michael Douglas for some reason. I never hear it mentioned when his career is laundry-listed on shows, I never see it alluded to when his great performances are brought up- and I think this stands at the top. The frustration, the rage, the intense grief and confusion bakes off the man. Douglas is at once hapless and righteous. His sweat soaked, short sleeve buttoned up, nerdy office exterior juxtaposed against his coiled, clenched rage is a magnificent thing to behold- far different than anything I have seen from him before. He is threatening and pitiable, gentle and vicious, and profoundly sad and lost. I think itís his best role.
So in the end I walked out of the theater, nodded that I had just seen something special and went on with life. Looks like I didnít need some stupid expository one-liner thrown in to make sure I didnít abandon my car on the Bronx Expressway the next time asshole Yankee fans and Johnny punch-clocks gum up the one pothole-ridden lane left open by absent construction crews. Because guess what? Thatís life. And I canít change that, and I certainly donít have the right to hurt others to change it just for my own needs. Wow- Big introspective discovery there. Thanks Joel. Whatís next, garishly lit sodomy of an American Icon in an effort to piggyback your subculture onto it because you canít think of an original way to promote your lifestyle save to highlight the rantings of a repressive Ď50ís psychologist? Oh. Oh yeah, you did go on to do the Batman movies. Prick.
Ah, look at that. I just couldnít resist going into Gay Fantasia Batman territory with Schue the Fairy Queen. Well forget it people, my apologies- thereís no place for it here. This is a movie by the director I respected for ďLost Boys,Ē and still retains much to be proud of. Moving on.
What I saw in this film was a man driven to abandon societyís inadequacies in favor of clear cut, logical, yet selfish shortcuts that force the obstacles and herds in everyday life to stop and take notice of the needs of the individual- a choice made in a simple, single moment of extreme mind-bending frustration and despair- the moment that goes through all of our heads at least once a day as we are trapped on a stalled subway, seeing a never-ending stopped line of cars on the freeway, filling out triplicate forms for a minute-transaction, standing in ridiculously mismanaged lines, staring into an eye-searing computer screen for hours on end to make someone else lots of money, patiently trying to get through to another human being who seems unable to comprehend even the most basic modes of communication and is simply more interested in provoking or belittling you, and just plain not being able to go along with the plans that life has set out for you rather than the ones you set for yourself.
White, Black, Hispanic, Asian- the much ballyhooed racial implications of the film never go beyond implications really- Bill is not racist- his enemies are the complacent masses and foolish individuals that canít see beyond their selfishness and ignorance. And of course, in the end, and much more importantly, the film is about the systematic loss of oneís identity as an American- Billís wife, child, purpose and prospects have been lost to him, one by one, and now what is left to him? Can he ever hope to reclaim any of it? Does he even deserve to?Though grievously flawed in its intentions, ďFalling DownĒ is still worth the time, still thought provoking, and still moving despite its crudely sewn moral safety net undermining the disturbing implications it should have been free to explore.
link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=4296&reviewer=358
originally posted: 06/23/05 17:29:52