Beginning with its release in 1993 Joel Schumacher’s film, Falling Down, divided audiences and critics alike. The conflict boils down to whether or not Falling Down succeeds as a satire. When asked about the main character, William, Schumacher said “He’s not a bad guy.” The people who find themselves at the wrong end of his machine gun might disagree. Schumacher’s comment is somewhat ambiguous. It could be seen as a humorous nod to William and his “folly,” or it could be seen as a plea for some measure of sympathy for a misunderstood man.
If Falling Down is meant to be a satire it spends too much time reveling in what it is supposed to be satirizing. William is much closer to a hero than a villain or parody. Falling Down is closer to the vengeful tirade seen in Michael Winner’s 1974 film Death Wish than an ironic caricature in a movie like John Avildsen’s 1970 film Joe. We understand Joe, we recognize him, but we do not identify with him. We don’t see things through his eyes. We don’t want to be in his shoes, but in Falling Down, William offers us a chance to finally get the upper hand against all those people who get in our way. Standing in William’s shoes we are given the opportunity to bully Mexican street gangs instead of having them bully us.
Falling Down is an indulgence. The viewer is invited to point a gun at anyone who annoys them. It doesn’t matter if it’s over a hamburger, what matters is that everyone show deference and respect to us. Falling Down is the story of a Karen with a gun, which is to say it is about white privilege with a gun. William doesn’t see street gangs as the result of complex social factors, they are just stupid people that get in his way. In the film he beats two thugs with a piece of wood and yells “Clear a path motherfucker, I’m going home!”
The most important feature of white privilege is the assertion that white privilege does not exist. By definition white privilege is unjust and so to acknowledge its existence undermines its purpose. White privilege is a one-way street that believes itself to be a two-way street. The privileged believe that all humanity is equally deserving of respect and so the privileged demand their fair share. What they fail to recognize is that the entitlement extends to the other people around them. The privileged demand respect but do not offer it in return. It is a form of egocentrism, where the thoughts and feelings of others are difficult to imagine never mind consider.
For the privileged, there is a sense that society is getting increasingly hostile toward the ordinary man (ordinary meaning white.) He is made to wait his turn, and each person in front of him is an injustice. Through his egocentric lens, Black Lives Matter is about him and how his life is being devalued. He has to endure homosexuals being allowed to get married, and women telling him he can’t call them “honey.” He’s exhausted from having to see people as equals, or simply see people at all.
The heart of conservatism is a desire for simplicity. For the conservative, the world should be a simple place where men are men and women are women. Women wear women’s clothes and have sex with men. Men wear means clothes and have sex with women. Criminals are bad people who do bad things because they are bad and they should go to jail. Everyone in jail is guilty and deserves to be there. Christianity is not one religion among many but the self-evident truth. The world is a fair and orderly place where the rich are rich because they did something right and the poor are poor because they did something wrong.
Bringing such a world view to the screen can be of great value. It can provide an opportunity to examine the dynamics of how all this works and where it comes from. Unfortunately, We learn very little about William. He is a stand-in for a vicarious thrill, not for psychological insight.
Falling Down has been compared to Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver but, Taxi Driver is a nuanced character study where we witness one man’s descent into madness. We understand Travis Bickle but we are horrified by his actions. There is no reverie or indulgence, and his destruction at the end is the logical conclusion of his story. William is killed at the end of Falling Down in order to absolve us for our indulgence. Noir films could literally get away with murder as long as the bad guy died in the end.
What Schumacher’s intentions were in making Falling Down are of limited relevance. What he produced is more a hero’s journey with a convenient ending than an opportunity to examine society. We are meant to enjoy William not reproach him.
In the end, William is not a transgressive character. He is a staunch advocate for people’s complete subjugation to the system. If everyone would just do their job, play by the rules, and obey the law he wouldn’t have to be a bully. It’s very close to the concept of the white man’s burden. The white man’s burden is to civilize the world of primitives and savages, sometimes through violent invasions. William is an extension of this idea. He is just making sure everyone adheres to civilization’s norms. If that means murdering the disobedient so be it. William didn’t make the world he lives in but he will defend it to the death.