Aug 12, 2023

One of my favorite films is Falling Down, starring Michael Douglas and Robert Duvall.

People don't like the movie. I understand. It's violent and at first glance appears to be a celebration of nihilism. It's actually a nearly perfect cautionary tale.

There are a few typical Hollywood touches that I could do without, such as the fact that an American flag is generally in the scene when something grotesque is happening. Plenty of movies use the same sneaky iconography. Silence of the Lambs, for instance, has an American flag covering the car in the storage unit, where Agent Starling finds the severed head in the jar. There are also two American flags visible when Starling shoots Buffalo Bill to death: One is on the wall, and the other is the tiny version you give to children at parades. The serial killers in Silence of the Lambs are "flag wavers."

In Falling Down, pivotal sequences take place in a barrio, at a fast food restaurant, on a golf course, and at an obscenely gigantic mansion. The antihero William Foster (Michael Douglas) works for a defense contractor. Nick (Frederic Forrest)—the hideous, raving, homophobic, repressed-gay Nazi—is a right-wing gun nut. A disabled, black veteran begging from his wheelchair is draped in the Stars and Stripes. A well-dressed black man in a shirt and tie can't get a loan, and he's carted off by the police for picketing the bank. Every cop except for Sergeant Martin Prendergast (Robert Duvall) and Detective Sandra Torres (Rachel Ticotin) is a crude, swinish blockhead.

Most of the characters are cartoons, from the gangbangers, the burger joint manager, the road crews, and even the passersby. On its surface, the film is supposed to be a series of subtle digs at the United States. To me, that sort of symbolism has all the subtlety of this.

Doesn't matter. I don't care about the symbolism. It's the story that's important. William Foster loses everything because of his rage. He's a failure as a husband, a father, a provider, and an employee. You can pretty much say he's a failure as a human being. He refuses to accept reality and goes on a murderous rampage across Los Angeles, trying to "go home" and be with his ex-wife and his little daughter on her birthday, even though he isn't wanted there.

I identify totally with Foster, despite the fact that I never turned my rage outward. Foster blames everyone else for his own failures. He says, "I did everything they told me to do. They lied to me!"

Sergeant Prendergast has the perfect answer: "They lie to everybody."

True. Even so, I don't blame "them." I blame myself for my failures. Though the lousy choices I made had a context, I was the one who made the choices. Therefore I bear the responsibility.

I genuinely like Foster and feel for him, but he's evil. He rationalizes his atrocities, pointing to his own terrible circumstances and incrementally committing more and more crimes until he's a monster, no different from those he hates. His real problem isn't that "everybody" lied to him; he's a failure because he's a rigid, self-pitying, controlling, narcissistic man who wants everything done his way, no matter the cost to anybody else. And he knows it too. When he watches a video of one of his daughter's early birthday parties, he insists she be put on a rocking horse even though she's crying and doesn't want to get on it.

He interrupts his crooning baby talk about "horsies" to snarl at his weeping wife, demanding that she just shut up and do what he tells her. Her expression is awful; she realizes the massive mistake she made in marrying him. It's an expression of mortal sorrow. As he watches the old video, Foster turns away in shame. But after that moment of clarity, he resumes his destructive, implacably selfish behavior. The only person who really matters is him.

Falling Down is a supremely moral movie. It's exactly the opposite of nihilistic. It shows the price a person pays when he refuses to face reality, admit to his failings, take the welfare of others into account, and—most critically—make the changes necessary when his life isn't working out.

I was William Foster for the first forty-nine years of my life. My rage defined me. Instead of walking around with a gym bag full of guns and shooting everyone who annoyed me, I drank, took drugs, ate compulsively, surrounded myself with horrible people, and seethed. Like William Foster, I was happy for a brief period when I met the right woman. The difference between Foster and me is that after she ended the relationship, I let her go completely, in the sense that I never pursued her, tried to win her back, or kept tabs on her. Emotionally, I couldn't let go, but that was my problem. It had no impact on her life.

We don't know if the increasingly violent William Foster is gearing up for a murder-suicide. I've always found that crime particularly abhorrent. The helplessness of the victim is what enrages me. Whenever there's a murder-suicide in the news, I never think about the feelings of the killer or what "drove him to do what he did." All I think of is the person who was murdered.

If a chronically angry, weak-willed, gluttonous, inadequate loser like me could refrain from hurting the woman who rejected me, anybody can. The perpetrators of such crimes have no excuses. They take the easy way out. First they vent their rage on the defenseless target of their obsession, and then they turn out their own lights, escaping the consequences of their actions. They're petty and cowardly, and their crime is unforgiveable. To kill someone because they reject you is an admission of comprehensive, universal failure. It's something an animal would do.

The wonderful thing about Falling Down is that because of its brilliance and the superb performance of Michael Douglas, I have great empathy for the inadequate, rigid, controlling failure William Foster, and I root for his self-indulgent crime spree to be stopped. As I said, it's a nearly perfect cautionary tale. It shows me I did the right thing after the only woman I ever loved drove me away: I simply ate my sense of monumental injustice and didn't act on it. I left her in peace.

And I took my walks around the golf course seen in the movie.

That golf course is featured prominently in my novel Chasing the Last Whale, a cousin to Falling Down and the second volume of the Ghosts Trilogy. The main character—Elliot Finnell—is an angry man who can't move beyond a failed relationship. Like William Foster, he blames everybody else for the darkness in his life. His rage hurts others, something he can't perceive because he feels so sorry for himself. Once he's made aware of how unjust his actions are, he has to decide if he'll continue being destructive or stop.

By the end of Falling Down, William Foster knows full well that what he's doing is wrong. When he watches the video of himself abusing his ex-wife and infant daughter, the horror is written all over his face. But rather than admit to his failings, he pushes them away and continues with his planned revenge. His flash of self-awareness drives him to even greater heights of depravity, a frantic attempt to deny responsibility for his choices.

I understand William Foster. He's a deeply tragic figure. However, he's no victim. He's a perpetrator who deserves everything he gets.