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Beth Bruckner O'Brien

Falling Down: Film Review

By | Essential Viewing

Falling Down

Released – February 26th, 1993
Written By – Ebbe Roe Smith
Directed By – Joel Schumacher
Starring – Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey
Runtime – 1 hour, 53 minutes
Genre – Crime, Drama

In a city rife with racial tension, a struggling economy, and a dwindling middle class, a disgruntled middle-aged man has armed himself with a bag of guns and is rampaging the city. This may seem like a present-day news headline, but it’s actually the plot of a Joel Schumacher film from 1993 starring Michael Douglas. The relevance of the film is even more poignant today. With racial injustices prompting Black Lives Matter, and a disgruntled middle America electing Donald Trump into the White House, the plot for Falling Down seems to focus on the exact type of man who might vote for Trump and fit into a 2018 environment.

Michael Douglas plays a character we know only as “D-FENS,” based off his vanity license plate. The film starts in the middle of a blistering Summer day in Los Angeles, and D-Fens is stuck in traffic. Headlights and construction are all he can see, and in a visually unsettling montage of images, we get the impression that D-Fens has had “enough.” What he’s had “enough” of is uncovered over the course of the film, and it’s part of the film’s strength that we merely start out with a relatable character stuck in traffic. In a moment of pure frustration, D-Fens gets out of his car with his briefcase, and leaves his car in the midst of the traffic jam. “I’m going home,” D-Fens tells a fellow gridlocked individual (ironically played by the writer of the film, Ebbe Roe Smith).

Thus begins D-Fens’s journey across Los Angeles. His first stop is a payphone, but he’s missing the appropriate amount of change to make a phone call.  So, he stops into a local Korean bodega to get change. This is where the film starts to pick up momentum and veers into controversial territory. Frustrated with the Korean shop owner’s insistence that he must buy something in the store to receive change, D-Fens grows increasingly animated, to the point where the Korean shop owner reaches for a baseball bat. D-Fens grabs the baseball bat and proceeds to launch into a racist tirade about “you people” while trashing the store. Hmm, you might wonder, perhaps this D-Fens guy isn’t so likable. You’re correct in feeling that. D-Fens is actually the villain. And that’s when we get to meet the truly likable hero of the film, Prendergrast, a near-retirement cop played by Robert Duvall.

A lot of the controversy about Falling Down when it initially debuted in 1993 was that some people viewed the film as racist propaganda. That it showed an “anti-hero” who takes out all of “our” (the audience) collective frustrations about life. And for some people, it seems that it has become a sort of “hero” story about a guy who’s at the end of his rope and is wreaking havoc on the city of Los Angeles like it’s his enemy. But if you watch the film as the social commentary it is, you can see that it represents the type of privilege-gone-wrong that, potentially, causes the kind of violence we see today.

After the Korean store, D-Fens encounters a couple of Latino gangbangers (played in an overly stereotypical fashion) who try to mug him. D-Fens rightly defends himself, but takes it a little too far and bashes the two men with his stolen baseball bat. All D-Fens wants to do is make a call, and so he proceeds to leave the beaten men to find the nearest payphone. That’s when he finally talks to his ex-wife Beth, played by Barbara Hershey. Now, we’re finally getting to understand who D-Fens truly is. Beth is scared of him, and D-Fens indicates he’s coming home for his little girl’s birthday party. That makes Beth even more scared, and she calls the cops. But those Latino gangbangers come back for more, this time armed with a bag of guns. And in a confluence of convenience, they crash their car while trying to shoot at D-Fens. This provides D-Fens the opportunity to stalk up to their disabled car, grab the guns, and proceed to murder them while they’re injured.

The stakes have gone up. . . D-Fens has a whole lotta guns, and he’s angry enough to use them on pretty much anyone. His next source of frustration is a McDonald’s-type fast food restaurant that refuses to serve him breakfast at 10:33am (3 minutes past their breakfast cut-off time). But D-Fens has got the guns to force the situation to go in his favor. Restaurant in panic, D-Fens walks out with his substandard breakfast sandwich (“why is this not like the picture??”) and continues along his way.

The cops, mostly Prendergrast, are on D-Fens’s tail at this point. And we get to see the lovely moments where bumbling-yet endearing Prendergrast puts the pieces together. Prendergrast is a great detective, but he feels it’s time to retire to take care of his ailing wife. The ailing wife has pretty much lost her mind and suffers from an anxiety disorder because they recently lost their child. It’s all ridiculously endearing for Prendergrast to think he needs to give up the detective work he loves to make his wife feel better. And as Prendergrast starts tracking D-Fens through the seemingly unrelated incidents flooding into the police station, we get a sense that he’s actually a really good cop.

Meanwhile, ex-wife Beth keeps getting calls from D-Fens and the cops that visit her aren’t reassuring or at all helpful. She’s got a restraining order after all, and D-Fens has only threatened that he’s coming home, so there’s nothing they can do and they have more urgent calls to take care of. D-Fens then stops at an Army Surplus Store. He needs new shoes, and while the owner of the store seems like a homophobic asshole, D-Fens likes the looks of a pair of combat boots. At this moment, a cop on the prowl for D-Fens, happens to enter the store. The Army Surplus owner is a fan of D-Fens; he’s been listening to his CB radio and really likes the idea of this angry man shooting up Latino gangbangers and messing with Korean shop owners. So, of course Army Surplus owner covers for D-Fens and drags him down to his secret Nazi lair, complete with gas masks, swastikas and Nazi paraphernalia. This is also a controversial moment in the movie. D-Fens, while he’s an antagonist/villain by any other standards, is not a white supremacist. He’s just your average disenfranchised white male who’s suffered from losing his job, losing his wife, and subsequently losing his mind. So when D-Fens gets into a confrontation with this white supremacist shop owner, he rightfully (or at least in his fractured mind) kills him.

The next few stops are pretty easy to sum up: D-Fens blows up a construction site with a handheld missile launcher, gives an old, rich, white man a heart attack on a golf course, holds a young family hostage, and finally heads to his ex-wife’s house in Venice. You see, we learn that D-Fens is not just some average racist who wants to beat up Koreans and Latinos for no reason. D-Fens is frustrated with the whole system. He’s frustrated with immigrants. He’s frustrated with the government. He’s frustrated with rich, white people. He’s frustrated with white supremacists. He’s frustrated that he lost his job as a defense contractor (hence, his license plate) and that he’s been ousted by his wife who’s terrified of his anger issues.

D-Fens’s anger stems from him feeling like the world doesn’t care about him. He used to be a nice, middle-class man with a family. Now, he’s unemployed, divorced and the whole world seems to be against him. At the end, when D-Fens has finally chased down his ex-wife and his child, good ol’ detective Prendergrast has also caught up with him. Prendergrast’s wholesome, conversational approach seems to finally resonate with D-Fens. And in a moment of clarity, D-Fens asks Prendergrast “I’m the badguy?” Prendergrast is forced to shoot D-Fens when D-Fens pulls a water gun. It’s a moment of suicide-by-cop that shows that D-Fens understood his options were limited after he’d murdered people.

Yes, D-Fens, you are indeed the “bad guy” in this story. And this story feels incredibly relevant for so many reasons.

The movie explores how even the most seemingly normal person can become so overwhelmed with the supposed injustices of the world that they feel the need to take power by harming others. It also shows the ease of violence that comes with, more or less, readily available guns. This film is a study in how to write an antagonist, and how to make a connection with even the most vile person. Some people watch this movie and see a hero in D-Fens, someone who enacts all their deepest, darkest fantasies. I see a cautionary tale about what can happen when someone’s expectations of life turn out to be greater than the reality.

When the film was originally shot in 1992, the final few days of filming took place right as the L.A. riots broke out. There’s an interview on the DVD with Michael Douglas about how he felt the film represented a specific, societal frustration, and how the riots embodied that frustration.

He was right, and yet, those same frustrations still abound. I’m not saying Falling Down offers any answers on how to deal with that frustration, but it does provide some insight into the mentality of others.

And it provides an excellent blueprint for how to tell a story from the viewpoint of an antagonist.

Joe Versus the Volcano: Film Review

By | Essential Viewing

Joe Versus the Volcano

Released: March 9th, 1990
Written and Directed By: John Patrick Shanley
Starring: Tom Hanks, Meg Ryan, Lloyd Bridges
Runtime: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Genre: Dark comedy, fantasy, romance

Most people are familiar with the combination of Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. From Sleepless in Seattle to You’ve Got Mail, the duo has proven to be a sure-fire winner.

But there’s a lesser known film in which the two star: Joe Versus the Volcano. When the film released in 1990, it was met with mixed reviews. Most people didn’t “get” it—and that’s not surprising, as the most common word used to describe the film is “quirky.” As you begin watching, bubbly Amblin credits roll over the screen while an amalgamation of depressing imagery harkens back to German expressionism. You may find yourself wondering, “isn’t this a comedy?” But this is the genius, near-impossible-to-pull-off tone of Joe, a comedic fantasy about the drudgery of modern life. Be patient with it. This is a movie you may have never seen the likes of, and may never see again.

The story itself is quite melancholy. . . . A chronically depressed, hypochondriac Joe (played by Tom Hanks, with a substantial mullet) is diagnosed with a terminal brain cloud that will painlessly kill him within 5-6 months. For Joe, a guy who’s been sleepwalking through his job at a medical supply factory where their specialty is manufacturing anal probes and lubricant jelly, this comes as an unexpected blessing. Joe is quickly offered an opportunity to “live as a rich man and die as a hero” when an eccentric billionaire offers unforeseen wealth if Joe willingly jumps into a volcano as a sacrifice to a superstitious, native island population. Having literally nothing to lose, Joe accepts the offer, quits his demeaning job, and begins his journey.

Meg Ryan co-stars in three—yes, three—different roles as three different women Joe encounters over the course of the story. Where the film really shines is also threefold: the dialogue crackles with the intensity that only a lauded playwright like John Patrick Stanley could achieve, the situations are bizarrely relatable, even though it’s a hellscape of depression and unrealized dreams, and the tone is somehow hilarious even though it’s crushingly sad.

The one area the film could use some modernization is the third act. And this may prove to be a struggle for a new audience. The tribe living on the volcanic island where Joe travels to is a cartoonish portrayal of a native population. It’s done for laughs, and it may not play as funny as it did in 1990 (. . . or perhaps it never worked at all). And the final VFX and outlandish turn of events may sour your final impression of the movie. Nonetheless, Joe’s overall ambition is high and should be respected as such. It’s a fairytale about a man who reclaims his happiness by jumping into a volcano. Pay attention to the details though, because it’s all about the theme lying underneath each piece of dialogue. It’s about the human, oddball moments that speak to everyone who has sometimes felt a little different and a little lonely. Like Meg Ryan’s 3rd character states so plainly, “I’m soul sick, and you’re gonna see that.”

To top off everything, the direction, production design, acting, and cinematography are as committed to the tone and the message as the script itself. And somehow, watching it now, the film seems just as daring as it must have in 1990. Though others have attempted to tackle the “unrealized life” fulfilled through fairytale—the underappreciated The Secret Life of Walter Mitty comes to mind—Joe Versus the Volcano handles tone and dialogue like no other film. And if you’ve ever endeavored to write or make a movie yourself, this is mandatory viewing to release your creative flow.