In the Dark: ‘Falling Down’ remains relevant 25 years later

Kirk Boxleitner
Posted 3/20/18

It’s the best film that director Joel Schumacher has ever made. It marks the best acting performance of Michael Douglas’ career. And it's the 25th anniversary of its theatrical release. So why …

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In the Dark: ‘Falling Down’ remains relevant 25 years later


It’s the best film that director Joel Schumacher has ever made. It marks the best acting performance of Michael Douglas’ career. And it's the 25th anniversary of its theatrical release. So why aren’t more people talking about 1993’s “Falling Down”?

Like so many of pop culture’s productions of the 1990s, “Falling Down” still feels like a simmering reaction to the raw aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, just one year before.

And yet, for our country today, when so many working-class white men see themselves as society’s “forgotten men,” it’s arguably as relevant a film as it’s ever been.

We’re introduced to Douglas, an already disgruntled defense contractor (whose vehicle license plate reads “D-FENS”), in the middle of one of Los Angeles’ infamously sweltering and road-rage-inducing traffic jams.

The scene is framed to make us think he’s commuting to his job, but then, why do we later see him circling job listings in his copy of the newspaper?

He finally freaks out and abandons his car in the middle of the gridlocked freeway, telling another motorist that he’s going “home.” Yet we’re left to wonder where “home” is, once we learn that his wife has taken out a restraining order against him.

What’s so unsettling about the unraveling mystery of D-FENS, whose full identity and backstory slowly unfold during the film, is not the fact that he is, like London Bridge in the song, “falling down,” but rather that, by the time we first see him, he’s been falling for quite a while.

As D-FENS walks across the city, on foot, through some of its worst neighborhoods, we’re initially invited to sympathize with many of his frustrations, from the price gouging of convenience stores to the hostile territoriality of street gangs, before we see the not-so-subtle racial dimensions of D-FENS’ ensuing outbursts of violence, against a Korean store owner and Latino gang members.

When D-FENS uses a cache of firearms acquired from the gang to vent his spleen at the all-white counter staff of a fast-food joint, a scene so comic that its opening moments could have featured on the sitcom “Seinfeld” (in fact, the cashier in that scene, Dedee Pfeiffer, played one of George Constanza’s girlfriends on “Seinfeld”), things take a sinister turn.

However legitimate some of D-FENS’ grievances might seem, or however much of a vicarious thrill we might get from seeing his disproportionately destructive responses to rich, spoilsport golfers or apathetic road construction crews, it’s when we see him holding an entire restaurant full of innocent citizens hostage that it’s made clear how much of a sadistic kick he’s getting out of his newfound power.

During the 1990s, it was taken for granted that LA was hellishly chaotic. So the joke of “Falling Down” is that only one cop, Sgt. Prendergast (Robert Duvall), on the last day before his retirement, thinks to connect all of D-FENS’ acts of violence across the city as being the deeds of one man.

With a hectoring wife, dismissive coworkers, a scornful boss and a dead child, Prendergast is presented as a man who has every reason in the world to pull a “D-FENS,” and yet, he’s practically McGruff the Crime Dog in human form, a quietly decent protector who has never expected life to do him any favors.

This contrasts sharply with the uninhibited aggrievement of D-FENS, who laments that his life didn't turn out how he’d planned, even though he, like Prendergast, sought to protect his fellow Americans through his work.

In spite of the ever-escalating scale of D-FENS’ misdeeds, when Douglas shakes his head sadly and says, “I did everything they told me to,” it’s hard not to share his sense of betrayal.

Because, for all of his selfishness, D-FENS has the capacity to empathize with others, as illustrated in a brilliant scene with Vondie Curtis-Hall, a black man dressed in exactly the same “Dilbert”-style office-drone wardrobe worn by Douglas.

We hear Curtis-Hall almost before we see him, loudly protesting outside a bank that denied him a loan, on the grounds that he was “not economically viable.”

D-FENS watches wordlessly, the only one in the milling crowds who even seems to notice, as Curtis-Hall is eventually arrested by the police.

As he’s led away, Curtis-Hall makes eye contact with Douglas, and switches from his shouting voice to softly say to Douglas, “Don’t forget me.”

Douglas simply nods silently, in a powerfully understated moment of spiritual kinship. And though Curtis-Hall’s scene lasts barely more than two minutes, the man who is “not economically viable” haunts D-FENS, and the audience, for the rest of the film.

When this film was originally released, conservative critics treated it as an attack on middle-aged white men, while liberal reviewers regarded it as all but openly racist propaganda.

In the years since, the closest I’ve been able to find to a consistently expressed message in “Falling Down” is Prendergast’s perspective: that everyday life is far more complicated and crueler than it needs to be, so the only thing you can do is be kind.

Kirk Boxleitner reviews movies in between covering sports, local government and community doings. Reach him at