“I’m the bad guy?”
These words, spoken by Bill Foster (Michael Douglas) near the end of Falling Down have always come across as heart-breaking to me, although for the longest time I’ve considered the scene from Foster’s perspective. They’re spoken after he storms off the freeway during a heat wave, leaving his car behind, and begins taking out his frustration on the world by pointing to the arbitrariness and hypocrisy he sees around him. In one memorable moment, our protagonist makes a scene when he is denied breakfast at a fast food restaurant, after being merely a few minutes late for the cut-off. When he caves and orders lunch, he loudly complains about the disparity between the image of plump hamburgers on the menu and the limp, colorless thing he’s been handed.
Maybe it’s a result of my own white, male privilege, but I’ve always cheered along with these observations. When Foster is finally cornered after what many mis-characterize as a shooting spree (he really only directly kills one person, a repulsive Nazi played so extraordinarily by Frederic Forrest that it’s hard for me to see him in any other role), his plaintive question sounds so sincere. I’ve always empathized with Foster, insomuch as though he clearly commits criminal acts during his “rampage”, they’re done with a seemingly moral bent, and so I could understand why he wouldn’t comprehend that he was considered in-the-wrong by law enforcement authorities.
But I started thinking about the movie today (I’ve seen it so many times that I don’t need to re-watch it to write a review), and I realized how badly I’ve read the film for years. The reason that line – “I’m the bad guy?” – cuts so deep is not because Foster was unaware, but because he should have been. There are a few moments that entertain on a purely visceral level, as when our man enters a scene by punching a yuppie screaming at a woman during a traffic jam, but the vast majority of the movie just hammers home–again and again–that Foster is not special, and yet he refuses to acknowledge it.
The most visible of these moments comes when he sees another man protesting on the street in front of a bank. With a hand-written sign in hand, the man screams to passers-by that the bank is corrupt, that they refused him a loan based on the color of his skin but gave him the corporate-speak blow-off that he was “not economically viable.” It’s a moment where Foster could feel empathy himself, realizing that maybe his problems (he was let go from his job, he did not have custody of his daughter) were not unique. Instead, he appropriates the phrase as his own later in the film. Come to think of it, that moment might be even more telling: Foster hops a barbed fence to trespass into the backyard of a huge estate, jogging around the swimming pool to begin berating what he believes is the owner of the home for living in such an extravagant manner. As it turns out, the people he’s yelling at are the caretaker and his family, using the space as a bit of a vacation from their far less affluent lives. Yet again, Foster fails to see the irony of his rage being momentarily directed at people on, basically, his own social strata; consequently, he turns the moment into time for his own sob story, calling himself “not economically viable” to generate sympathy rather than outrage.
Yet in truth, what Foster wants to posit as a new consciousness is shown to be closed-mindedness from the very beginning. Trapped in a stand-still traffic jam during a major heatwave, he exits his vehicle in what he feels is a noble attempt to reconcile with his ex-wife and daughter. But what he doesn’t take into account is the fact that this action only burdens other people, who have now had a further difficulty placed in front of them in the form of his unmanned vehicle. If he had simply driven onto the side of the interstate before exiting (as the police officers who come to the scene do), he could have accomplished his goal without burdening anyone else. Or take another moment, where a homeless man begs our man for money, or food, or anything. Foster stops only long enough to quiz the man on a lie he made up to garner sympathy (because “I’m homeless” doesn’t turn heads, but “I’m a homeless vet” does), claiming some kind of moral victory out of catching the guy in a lie and therefore feeling satisfied in not providing assistance. At no point does Foster realize, “Huh. You know what? Lie or not, this man is homeless. Maybe he has it worse than I do.”
It’s not even limited to scenes like this which are now so obviously about condemning Foster rather than idolizing him. When he hides in the aforementioned Nazi’s shoe store, a female police officer (Rachel Ticotin, Con Air) comes to question the shop’s owner about Foster’s whereabouts. As she leaves, the Nazi repeatedly demeans her by referring to her as officer-ess. No doubt the plight of a female police officer trying to maintain respect from the community and co-workers can be stressful, given that the occupation is a traditionally male-dominated field. Certainly, she retorts that she’s just called a police officer, full stop, but does she draw her weapon and shoot up the store? Of course not. But Foster doesn’t see that; he rightly sees the Nazi as abhorrent, but doesn’t really consider the effect that his words and those of others like him have had on the officer, or on the gay couple he previously ushered out of the store. Instead, Foster sees only his own alleged righteousness.
Maybe I do need to see the movie again. I wonder how this new understanding of the movie will affect my appreciation of it. I’ve always found it hard to reconcile Foster’s casual racism early in the film with his seemingly positive motivations later. But now that I realize he really was the bad guy all along, a revelation I’m frankly ashamed to say it took me this long to uncover, will it be harder to stomach? Perhaps, but there will still be an artistry in the composition entirely unlike anything else director Joel Schumacher has ever done, an assured tone and gritty atmosphere (it really feels unbearably hot throughout the movie), and an intense performance by Michael Douglas at the center. Also, I think the viewer is supposed to find entry-points where the social commentary is engaging. After all, wouldn’t we all like to blow up the pay-phone after some asshole yells at us for talking too long before them? The thin line between finding Foster’s actions laudable and indefensible is, I think, sewn into the fabric of the film. If anything, perhaps on a future viewing, this will lead me to appreciate the film more.