Smashing up a Korean shopkeeper’s store wasn’t the point of no return for D-Fens (played by Michael Douglas), the stern, assertive, no bullshit-taking anti-hero of Falling Down. Nor was it when he clubbed two gang members with a bat after straddling onto their turf. These are egregious, criminal acts, but nothing that would completely ruin his life if he didn’t plead mercy in front of an L.A. county judge.
The true jumping off point for D-Fens, however, was when his wife confirmed to him his single worst fear: he wasn’t needed. Not that his services as a father trying to help out with his daughter’s birthday weren’t needed, or the money he earned at his job before being determined economically wasn’t needed. But that he himself as a person was not needed. That’s gotta sting.
Falling Down is part black comedy, part revenge-fantasy for all the overworked, underappreciated denizens of the modern workplace, and documentary for any Los Angeles resident trying to stay afloat under the brutal heat and endless traffic. We totally get all the events that would set off D-Fens’ downward spiral, how every rude remark or every Civic cutting us off on the 405 just puts us that much closer to snapping.
At times, we condemn D-Fens: anyone who has ever had a fast food or retail job will have intimate memories of dealing with a customer like D-Fens throughout their career. Other times, we root for D-Fens form the sidewalk, like when he confronts a road construction worker and demands to know what is actually wrong with the street they’re repairing (our suspicions are right: turns out construction workers actually don’t do anything!) He reflects our desire to reprehend bigots, but also our innate bigotry that creeps out without us realizing it. He is the ultimate everyman, forgotten by society. Hell, we don’t even know his true name.
But a key piece of information is revealed later in the film that transforms our perception of D-Fens from the everyman anti-her. Apparently D-Fens lost his job much earlier, and that he’s had a violent streak for quite some time now. The disgruntled “I pay my taxes, I deserve respect” act is just cover-up for his inevitable mental breakdown. It’s a sad portrait of a man who has been forgotten but not in the aspect that he thinks.
D-Fens clearly suffers from a mental health disorder and he needs counseling, even institutionalization to help him get better and not let him become a threat to society. But now he’s just been lurking, stewing and obsessing, perceiving any outward inconvenience of living in Los Angeles as an unjust infringement of his rights as a human being. Even when the cops hear about his shenanigans, they aren’t concerned for those who may be harmed by D-Fens, they just laugh because he seems like such a nut.
Tracking down D-Fens is Prendergast, a soon-to-be-retired cop with a nagging wife and supervisors desperately waiting for him to turn in his badge. We’re supposed to believe that Prendergast and D-Fens aren’t so different, that society has manipulated their goals and taken away the things they really want. There is something that about D-Fens though that Prendergast seems to get that others don’t.
But really, the movie is a criticism against that sort of mentality, trying to relate to someone not because your really want to know that person, but because they justify the own angst you’ve been feeling. D-Fens doesn’t really see the black person protesting outside the bank as a person, but just another thing that further supports his own belief he’s been screwed over by the system. You can’t really say you want to relate to another person when you’re just using them as a jumping off point to discussing your own personal issues.
Falling Down is a raw, visceral experience, a taut portrayal of a man’s dangerous, mental unraveling and a society that doesn’t really give a shit at all about it. There’s nothing wrong with laughing at the funny moments in this movie, just as long as you don’t think of D-Fens as a joke.