Falling Down: Deluxe Edition
Directed By: Joel Schumacher
Starring: Michael Douglas, Robert Duvall, Barbara Hershey, Rachel Ticotin, Frederic Forrest, Tuesday Weld, Lois Smith, Michael Paul Chan
In Falling Down, Michael Douglas plays a recently divorced and laid-off defense worker who finds himself stuck in LA traffic on a very hot day. His mounting frustration brings him to a breaking point where he abandons his car in traffic and begins an odyssey on foot that takes him across downtown Los Angeles on his way to his ex-wife (Hershey) and daughter's home in Venice Beach. It is his daughter's birthday and he fixates on seeing her despite the existence of a restraining order forbidding it. His character is eventually identified as William Foster about two-thirds of the way through the film, but for most of its running time, he is identified only by the personalized license plate on his abandoned car: D-FENS. Of course, the only reason he is identified at all is that as he progresses through various downtown LA neighborhoods, the disaffected and alienated D-Fens meets every bit of disrespect he encounters with increasingly violent outbursts, eventually acquiring a small arsenal of weapons from a group of unfortunate gang-bangers who harassed him. The trail of seemingly inexplicable violence eventually attracts the attention of a veteran police detective on the eve of his retirement named Prendergast (Duvall), who pegs the odd and seemingly unrelated incidents as the workings of a single man.
The premise of the film is simplicity itself, with a plot that could have been lifted from any number of westerns transposed to a modern urban environment with a healthy serving of disaffected and alienated white middle class frustration and rage. Even the symbolism in the movie is writ large, with various objects and signs encountered along D-Fens' odyssey offering commentary on his mental state and a wardrobe change that occurs when his character reaches a point of no return that is further helpfully illustrated when the script has D-Fens call his ex-wife and tell her that he has reached a point of no return. Such blunt directness in a film can make it seem facile or preachy, but in this particular case, it proves to be quite effective and wholly appropriate. D-Fens is not a complex man, and from the moment he "snaps" during the film's opening sequence, his worldview seems to become progressively more myopic. Dark humor frequently derives from his encounters with various characters who assume he has more complex motivations and concerns than he actually does.
Douglas gives a performance that is simultaneously bravura and restrained. Compared to other memorable Hollywood characters pushed past their breaking points such as Howard Beale in Network and Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, Douglas's take on D-Fens offers up minimal histrionics. His violent outbursts are not slow motion orgies of gore, but sudden, impulsive, and often clumsy lashings out at the immediate sources of his frustration and anger. This has the chilling effect of making him seem not too far modulated from men that one encounters every day, or even the viewers themselves. Even though the screenplay suggests that he was viewed as potentially violent by his ex-wife, he does not seem so much like a psychotic passing as an everyman as an everyman who has been driven across a thin line into psychosis.
Robert Duvall creates a steady and determined foil for D-Fens as another man on the verge of being "forgotten" by society. His innate empathy both keeps him on the right side of sanity and helps him to understand D-Fens well enough to identify and pursue him. In an episodic film like this where momentum comes from a series of discrete encounters between D-Fens, his pursuers, and a diverse collection of characters from various walks of life, the supporting cast is very important. Schumacher fills out his film with strong actors in small roles including Michael Paul Chan as a Korean grocery store clerk who is unwittingly responsible for tipping the first domino of violence, Tuesday Weld as Prendergast's excessively needy wife, Lois Smith as D-Fens' fearful mother, Vondie Curtis-Hall as an irate man denied a bank loan, and several others. Barbara Hershey makes the most of the somewhat thankless role of D-Fens'ex-wife, striking an interesting balance between a woman who possibly drove her ex-husband towards his breaking point and one who was perceptive enough to recognize his potential for violence. The chameleonic Frederic Forrest stops just short of over the top as the repugnant neo-Nazi owner of a military surplus outlet. One small role that seemed to be not quite in the league of the other supporting parts occurred early in the film when a civilian helping Duvall's character and a traffic cop move D-Fens' car to the side of the road gives some stiff line readings. I did not realize until the closing credits that the man was played by screenwriter Ebbe Roe Smith.
From a technical standpoint, Schumacher and his collaborators offer strong thematic support for the performances, emphasizing earth tones in the color palette, using filters, framing tightly, and employing an occasionally cacophonous layering of ambient sounds to visually and audibly impart the oppressively hot physical and psychological atmosphere. Any film that opens with a man stuck in a traffic jam is going to evoke Fellini's 8-1/2, and Schumacher and Smith pull-off a neat inversion in their tour-de-force opening when instead of exiting his car into an ascendant dream, D-Fens exits to a descendant nightmare. (As an aside, 8-1/2 homages must have been all the rage in 2003 as R.E.M. released a music video for the song "Everybody Hurts" a couple of months after Falling Down premiered in which a crowd of people in a traffic jam get out of their cars and walk.)
As often as LA had been photographed for Hollywood films, Schumacher managed to lens parts of the city that had traditionally been under-represented. This proved to be an uncomfortably timely view of various ethnic neighborhoods and social castes in Los Angeles. The acquittal of the police officers who beat Rodney King and subsequent riots occurred while the film was being produced in the spring of 1992. While the film's specific setting in the early 90s when the US defense industry was contracting in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse has the potential to date it, its theme of middle-class white disenfranchisement has proven to be an even bigger hot button issue in the years since the film's release. (Exhibit A: the media storm that erupted when it was introduced as a topic of public discussion during last year's presidential campaigns). The film's controversial take on this subject continues to insure its relevance even in an era where defense workers are among the least endangered of white and blue collar employees.
The 16:9 enhanced 2.35:1 transfer is very good with excellent detail. Color and contrast are often artificially manipulated to create an oppressive atmosphere consistent with the psychology of the film's lead character. These manipulations are well-rendered in the digital video domain. Artifacts are minimal. Film grain is light and natural in appearance.
There is one scene late in the film where D-Fens moves into the shadows of a building with a family having a barbecue where I noticed areas of variable density in the dark parts of the screen. They did not look exactly like video banding and may have been artifacts of the thin film negative. I do not have a reference presentation with which to compare it. I noticed two or three instances of aliasing/shimmering and a couple of compression artifacts during some of the most detailed shots with a moving camera. High contrast edge-ringing was minimal to non-existent.
As with the previous DVD release, the soundtrack is presented via a Dolby Digital 2.0 Pro-Logic surround track. The film's densely layered sound mix is effective and does not really require a 5.1 remix to work, but the fidelity of this track encoded at 192 kbps does not do it justice. Music fidelity is noticeably lacking, and a less data compressed track would likely have yielded a more coherent overall sound field. It is serviceable as-is, but could have been a lot better. An alternate French Dolby Digital 2.0 Pro-Logic dub track is also available.
All extras are presented in 16:9 enhanced video with Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo sound.
Commentary by Michael Douglas and Joel Schumacher is both more and less than its billing would suggest. Rather than a screen-specific discussion of the film from its director and star, it is an oral essay with an anonymous host who introduces various participants including, in addition to Douglas and Schumacher, Writer Ebbe Roe Smith, Editor Paul Hirsch, Actor Michael Paul Chan, Actor Vondie Curtis-Hall, Actor Frederick Forrest, and LA Times writer Shawn Hubler. In general, the discussion is not screen specific, although the comments of supporting actors such as Chan, Hall, and Forrest are aligned with the specific scenes in which they appear. The Michael Douglas comments are from a 1993 interview, but since they are perceptive, interesting, occasionally unexpectedly candid, and clearly identified by the commentary host as archival, I will not hold that against them. The commentary is informative, although there were more silent passages than I expected. When the commentators talk about the behind the scenes process of making the film and the particulars of LA in the early 90s, the track is at its best. When they talk about the character motivations, things get a bit obvious. D-Fens is an interesting character, but he is not complicated or difficult to understand.
Deconstructing D-Fens: A Conversation with Michael Douglas (10:11) is a more recent video interview with the actor where he dissects his character and sets the film in the context of when it was made. This is a largely redundant interview that is much less interesting than the one that was used for the commentary, and as I stated previously, one does not have to be ultra-perceptive to understand the psychology of D-Fens. That relatable anger as well as Douglas' ability to underplay it, is why the film works as well as it does.
The Theatrical Trailer (2:30) misrepresents the film as only a studio marketing campaign could, selling the movie the studio wanted rather than the one that was made. It portrays Falling Down as a much less fatalistic odyssey through urban LA thanks to some arch promotional narration and selection of some of the more comical shots and scenes from the film for its montage.
The single sided dual-layered DVD-9 disc is packaged in a standard Amaray case with no inserts. The cover image replaces the familiar promotional image of Douglas in his short-sleeved shirt and tie on a hill against a smoggy urban LA background with an extreme close up of him looking through a pair of broken spectacles. I prefer the original image. If they had to change it, though, I kind of like the new image despite the fact that his glasses never get quite that shattered in the actual film and it is a bit of a Straw Dogs knock-off.
Despite being very much of its time, the controversial, thought-provoking, and darkly comic Falling Down still holds up sixteen years later. This is thanks to a streamlined script and production under the guidance of Director Joel Schumacher and a terrific performance from Michael Douglas as a man who snaps when he is involuntarily separated from his personal and professional lives. It is presented on this Deluxe Edition disc with an outstanding video transfer with only a few minor and infrequent artifacts. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Pro-Logic track underwhelms due to only modest fidelity representing what is otherwise a very effective and densely layered mix. Extras are top-lined by an audio essay commentary editing together interview passages from several participants in addition to Schumacher and Douglas. Extras are rounded out by a ten minute video interview with Douglas and the film's theatrical trailer.