Monday, December 6, 2010
A man (Michael Douglas) sits in LA traffic trying to keep his cool although it appears nothing is moving for miles leaving everyone sitting in record heat. We hear and see the tension building in the cars around him, horns honking, people swearing and fighting. His air conditioning is broken and a persistent fly won't leave him alone. His frustration reaches it's boiling point and the man just gets out of his car. When asked by the man in the car behind him, where he's going, he replies, "I'm going home." and heads off through the woods on the side of the road.
A police officer soon arrives to see the abandoned car. Officer Prendergast (Robert Duvall) approaches to take a look as well, suggesting they push the car out of the way to help get traffic moving. The officer on the scene declines, claiming it's too dangerous due to vehicles moving at high speeds. Prendergast looks around at the unmoving cars. When Prendergast identifies himself as a cop, the officer agrees to push it out of the way.
Prendergast tells the officer it's his last day as a cop, although the other officer doesn't seem to care much. Prendergast sees the abandoned cars license plate reads "D-Fens" D-Fens makes a call from a payphone to a woman, Beth (Barbara Hershey) who has her arms full of groceries, while walking a dog, and watching a little girl. The woman rushes inside her house hearing the phone ring from just outside. D-Fens hangs up. He then stops at a convenient store to get change for the pay phone. The shop owner refuses to give change unless he buys something. D-Fens picks up a Coke but gets angry when the shop owner unsympathetically tells him the Coke is 85 cents, which won't leave him enough for a phone call. The shop owner, in poor English, tells him to pay or leave. prompting D-Fens to argue. He gets angry at the man's broken English and smug non cooperative attitude. When the man corrects D-Fens' assumption that he's Chinese, by stating he's Korean, D-Fens asks him if he knows how much money his country has given Korea, although neither man knows how much, D-Fens stating "It's gotta be a lot." The shop owner gets angry, demanding "You go now. No trouble." D-Fens answers "I stay. What do you think of that?" The shop owner reaches under the counter for a compact baseball bat, but D-Fens fights with him taking it from his hand. The shop owner tells him to "take the money" but this offends D-Fens who says "You think I'm a thief? No. You see, I'm not the thief. I'm not the one charging eight five cents for a stinking soda! You're the thief. I'm standing up for my rights as a consumer." He then tells the shop owner he's rolling back prices to 1965. He asks prices for items in the store and when the shop owner gives him a price that's too high, D-Fens smashes the merchandise. After awhile, D-Fens opens the cash register, outs his dollar in and takes his change, paying fifty cents for the soda and leaving.
We find Prendergast at the police station, finding his desk drawer has been filled with sand as a retirement prank by his fellow officers. They tell him to be careful, reminding him of an officer who was on his way to his car after his last day on the force and got run down in the parking lot. They diminish the warning by mockingly saying his desk can be really dangerous. One of the officers, Sandra (Rachel Ticotin) claims she tried to talk them out of it, and says they don't have any other pranks planned before confirming that they're still on for lunch.
The woman that D-Fens hung up on is talking to someone on the phone about a birthday party. We see that the little girl with her is her daughter. D-Fens tries to call but finds the line busy. Prendergast takes a call from his wife, (Tuesday Weld) who begs him to come home, saying she got "a little scared." She mentions a move, and claims concern that he's moving just for her. He doesn't answer her concern only saying "the important thing is that we're together." She gets emotional again, pointing out that he isn't there. She demands that he say I love you, which he does, and when she still doesn't feel better he sings "London Bridge" with a musical snow globe he holds up to the phone. She laughs and he hangs up. We see that she is packing a picture of a little girl which is identical to a picture that Prendergast was looking at from his desk drawer.
D-Fens is sitting outside a neighborhood on a graffittied concrete step. He takes off one of his shoes, revealing a large hole in the bottom, which he tries to treat with some torn newspaper. He's approached by two young Latino men, who inform him that he's trespassing as well as loitering. He claims he didn't see any signs. One of the men points to the illegible graffiti, claiming it's a sign that says " This is fucking private property. No fucking trespassing. This means fucking you!"
D-Fens asks, "It says all that?" and when the man says yes, D-Fens responds, "Maybe if you wrote it in fucking English, I could fucking understand it." They don't appreciate the mockery and D-Fens tries to calm the situation saying they "got of on the wrong foot." He asks "This is a gangland thing isn't it? We're having a territorial dispute?" He tells them that he understands their position and he wouldn't want them in his backyard and offers to move on. They think however, that he should pay a toll. D-fens says he's had a rough morning, but they insist he give them his briefcase, one of them pulling a knife to show they're serious. He responds " Okay. Okay. I was willing to mind my own business. I was willing to respect your territory and treat you like you're men, but you couldn't leave it alone, could you? You couldn't let a man sit here for five minutes to take a rest on your precious, piece of shit hill? Okay. You want my briefcase? I'll get it for you."
D-Fens picks up the briefcase which is on the step concealing the bat, he took from the store owner, He attacks the men with it, hitting the man with the knife in the face and sending the other backing up. He hits the other man too and they both take off leaving D-Fens yelling "You forgot the briefcase!" and then "I'm going home. Clear a path motherfucker! I'm going home." He throws the bat at one of the men, but picks up the butterfly knife that one of them dropped.
Meanwhile, the shop owner that D-fens attacked is at the police station and brought to Prendergast to file a report. He claimsthat the man didn't rob him, which they find puzzling. They determine that it isn't a case for Prendergast, who works robbery. The shop owner says that the man took his baseball bat which he "uses for defense. Defense!" It's still not considered a robbery. The Latino men are driving around looking for D-Fens, who is making another silent phone call. This time the woman picks up and says "Cut the crap. I know it's you."
Beth: You've got to stop calling me.
D-Fens: It's Adele's birthday.
Beth: Yes. I know it's her birthday. What do you want?
D-Fens: I'm coming home.
Beth: What are you talking about?
D-Fens: I just uh, I want to let you know that I'm coming home for her birthday.
Beth: No. You're not coming here.
D-Fens: Listen Beth, I've gotta see you.
Beth: No. No you listen to me. This is my house now. I pay the rent. You don't even pay child support. You just can't walk in and out whenever you feel like it.
D-Fens: Don't talk like that, Beth. I have to come home. I have to bring her present.
Beth: You know you can't come here.
D-Fens: How's Adele?
Beth: This isn't your home anymore.
D-Fens: How is she?
Beth: She's doing just fine without you.
D-Fens: And you?
Beth: Don't. I'll call the police if I have to.
D-Fens: I'm coming home Beth. I'm coming home.
The Latino men, have found him. They park the car and pull out guns they drive by slowly shooting at D-Fens. The bullets break windows and hit several people but D-Fens is unharmed. Speeding off, distracted they get into a car accident. D-fens sees them bloodied from the wreck. He says. "you missed" and takes a bag of guns from them, shooting one of them in the leg to demonstrate that they need shooting lessons.
Prendergast goes to see the chief, who mentions that since he's retiring a little early, he won't be getting his full pension. He asks Prendergast if it's because he was wounded, but he says it has nothing to do with that. It's clear that the Chief intend to try to bully him into reconsidering asking if he "wants to stick with the team." The Chief asks about his kids, and Prendergast corrects him saying that they lost a child. The Chief recovers by saying "Still married though right?" to which Prendergast agrees.
We find D-Fens walking the street. he's blocked by road worker, who rudely tells him he'll have to take another street as the one he's trying for is blocked off. We see that Beth has the police at her house, making a report. She explains that she has a restraining order against her ex husband. She says that he has a horrendous temper and she'd debated whether a restraining order would do more harm than good, but was advised by the judge to "make an example of him." The officer asks if he has a "propensity for violence." She says he does, but then says he never struck her or their daughter, claiming, "There were times when I thought he was going to, but I didn't want to wait until he got around to it." The officer seems unconvinced about the risk and she can only add. "He could. I think."
D-Fens walks through a park and gets approached by a panhandler, who tells him a story about running out of gas. D-Fens demands to see his ID, and registration for his car, but the man determines it's more hassle than it's worth and tells him to forget it. The panhandler says "That's a hell of a way to treat a vet man!" D-Fens asks "You're an animal doctor?" The man claims he was in "Nam" and D-Fens asks "What were you, a drummer boy? You must have been ten years old." The man says "I meant to say the gulf, and claims he hasn't eaten in three days (although he's eating a sandwich at the time) He demands that D-Fen give him something, and finally he gives the man his briefcase, saying he doesn't need it anymore. The panhandler finds the only thing in the briefcase is a sandwich and some fruit.
The police have taken the girlfriend of one of the Latino men into custody and are asking her about the drive by. Prendergast hears her description of a white man, with a shirt and tie and baseball bat and sees a connection although the interrogating officer won't listen to him. Prendergast starts piecing together a connection.
D-Fens has now walked into a fast food burger place and asks for breakfast items. When the girl at the counter informs him that breakfast isn't available, he asks to speak to the manager. The manager also tells him they aren't serving breakfast. D-Fens asks "Rick, have you ever heard the expression, the customer is always right?"
D-Fens: Yeah, well, here I am. The customer.
Rick: That's not our policy. You have to order something from the lunch menu.
D-Fens: I don't want lunch. i want breakfast.
Rick: Yeah, well, hey, I'm really sorry.
D-Fens: Yeah? Well hey, I'm really sorry too. [pulling a gun from his bag]
The employees scream and customers start running, until D-Fens insists that everyone sit down and eat their lunch, attempting to calm them down, although he accidentally fires into the roof scaring everyone. Rick now agrees to make breakfast although D-Fens changes his mind and orders a burger instead. He asks the customers how they like the food making one women throw up under the pressure. He gets his order and holds up the burger to Rick.
D-Fens: See this is what I'm talking about. Turn around, look at that. [pointing to the menu on the wall]
you see what I mean? It's plump, it's juicy, it's three inches thick. Now, look at this sorry miserable squashed thing. Could anybody tell me what's wrong with this picture? Anybody? Anybody at all?
A little boy at a table raises his hand.
Prendergast and Sandra are meeting for lunch. The hostess seems excited assuming that they're partners again. Sandra explains that he's moving to Arizona. Sandra questions the move, and when Prendergast says "We like it." Sandra replies "She likes it. What are you gonna do, watch cactus grow?" He explains that his wife isn't handling middle age too well. He explains that his wife was once very beautiful and could have been anything, but settled for being a cop's wife, and she's having a hard time with her beauty fading as that was all she had. Sandra's current partner interrupts their lunch with details about what happened at the burger place. Prendergast is fascinated to hear that the man who held it up also paid for his lunch. He asks Sandra to find out if the man was wearing a white shirt and tie. He also adds that there was something he may never have mentioned about his wife. Sandra asks "What?" and he says "I love her."
D-Fens walks into a downtown area and sees a black man with a sign outside a bank which reads "Not economically viable" He also sees a snow globe with a carousel horse inside and buys it. The man with the sign is arrested while he watches. As the police drive the man off, he looks at D-Fens and says "Don't forget me." At Beth's house the police tell her they're leaving as it looks like he isn't showing up. D-Fens attempts to call her again, but gets a busy signal. Leaving the phone booth, a man berates him that there are other people waiting to use the phone. He questions the statement but the man confirms what he said, adding "that's right you selfish asshole." D-Fens remarks that "that's too bad" and pulls out a gun and destroys the phone.
Prendergast, at the station, gets a call from his wife apologizing about the earlier call. He tells her it's Ok but has to put her on hold to take a call from Sandra who confirms the white shirt and tie. He then puts Sandra on hold, although she has many interviews to do, which annoys her partner. His wife then asks him to come home again. She tries to keep him on the phone, but he gets back to Sandra and tells her that he thinks there have been other incidents with the same guy today. She doesn't seem to believe him, but humors him and insists that he not leave without saying goodbye.
D-Fens stops in at a military surplus store. He tells the store owner he needs hiking boots. The owner, Nick, gives him his advice on the merchandise, taking the opportunity to make remarks about using boots for stomping queers, which he says very loudly towards two men who are browsing the store. The customers start to leave, but hearing another remark one of the men confronts nick, asking if he has a problem. Nick tells him "read the sign. I reserve the right." The man tells Nick to "Make him" leave and walks towards him, prompting Nick to pull out a pistol, saying "Make your move, Mary." The gun doesn't appear to intimidate him too badly but they reluctantly leave, knocking over a display on the way out. D-Fens sees Sandra and her partner across the street.
Prendergast finds the Latino man's girlfriend and reveals that she's confessed that it was gang related already. He tells her that he knows it was a white man and asks how many guns they had. he tells him they had "all the guns in the world." Sandra comes into the surplus store looking for D-Fens. Nick tells her he hasn't seen anyone. He asks Sandra why they don't call women "officeresses" D-Fens asks why he didn't turn him in, and Nick says he has some things to show him. He gives D-Fens a look at various Nazi memorabilia, including an empty can of Zyklon B. He gives D-Fens a rocket launcher, telling him "I'm with you." Nick reveals that he's been following his incidents on the police scanner. He says "We're the same. We're the same you and me!" D-Fens responds "We are not the same. I'm an American. You're a sick asshole." Nick asks "What kind of vigilante are you?" He explains that he's simply trying to get home. D-Fens seeing Nick is troubled points out that Americans have the right to disagree.
Nick, not listening, pulls a gun on him. and starts going through his bag, throwing the snow globe and breaking it. He comes up behind him with handcuffs and points out the similarity between his position and his coming prison experience, ranting the whole time about "faggots" He tells D-Fens to give him his other hand. D-Fens says "I can't" Nick asks why and he replies. "Gravity. I'll fall down" He kicks D-Fens' feet out from under him, and repeats, "Give it to me" while D-Fens scans the room full of Hitler pictures. D-Fens remembers the butterfly knife and stands up and stabs Nick in the shoulder with it, which shocks him. D-Fens picks up a gun while Nick is dazed. Nick babbles into a mirror "Oh my God." D-Fens remarks "Good! Good, Freedom of religion. Now you get the swing of it. Feels good to exercise your rights, doesn't it?" He then shoots at Nick and the mirror several times.
Prendergast has cornered the chief in the men's room and is trying to tell him that D-Fens is heading west. The Chief as well as the officers who questioned the Latino girl don't appreciate his input and make a joke out of his theory. The Chief, takes a minute to tell Prendergast that he's never liked him because he doesn't trust a man that doesn't curse. He tells Prendergast "Get back behind that desk where you belong and don't waste any more of my time pretending you're a cop." Sandra tells him the latest developments, although he doesn't seem interested. Sandra tells him it's his own fault, for not revealing that he came off the street because of his wife. Prendergast tells her that what's between him and his wife is no one's business. he relates an incident where he came home late and she had thought he was a ghost when he came home. He decides to go after D-Fens and Sandra offers to go with him.
D-Fens calls Beth and asks who she was talking to. He tells her he is coming home and that "I've passed the point of no return. Do you know what that is, Beth? That's the point in a journey where it's longer to go back to the beginning. It's like when those astronauts got in trouble. I don't know, somebody messed up, and they had to get them back to Earth. But they had passed the point of no return. They were on the other side of the moon and were out of contact for like hours. Everybody waited to see if a bunch of dead guys in a can would pop out the other side. Well, that's me. I'm on the other side of the moon now and everybody is going to have to wait until I pop out."
She tells him that the police are there and he tells her that in some countries it's legal to kill your wife if she insults you.
Prendergast and Sandra start canvassing the area. He realizes that the man is the guy who abandoned his car earlier and has Sandra call for information on the plate. D-Fens appears walking down the middle of a traffic jam, dressed in a military jacket. He casually punches a guy who's obnoxiously cursing the at car in front of him. He finds a man doing "roadwork" which in this case is laying on the street telling D-Fens he can't pass. He questions the man about the job they're doing saying " Two days ago the street was fine. Are you telling me the street fell apart in two days?" The man mockingly says "Well, I guess so." D-Fens replies "I want to know what's wrong with the street. See, I don't think anything's wrong with the street. i think you just want to justify your inflated budgets." He points out that if they don't spend all their money this year, they'll get less of a budget next year and demands the man admit that there's nothing wrong with the street. "Fuck you pal, huh?" the man says before noticing his gun. He then changes his tone, claiming he's just there so people don't fall in holes, but D-Fens demands to hear it from him, and the man finally admits there's nothing wrong. D-Fens offers to give him something to fix and pulls out his rocket launcher. He can't figure it out but a kid standing nearby helps him figure it out, telling him he's seen it on TV. He fires too early before aiming and sends the rocket underground causing a gas line explosion.
Sandra and Prendergast discover that D-Fens' name is William Foster and they go talk to his mother. D-She lets them into his room and they look through his notebooks. His mother tells Prendergast that her son "built things to keep them safe from the communists." She describes how her son made her nervous sometimes, and Prendergast discovers his wedding ring in his drawer, getting the ex wife's name from the mother. Sandra discovers that D-Fens lost his job a month ago.
D-Fens scales a fence to cut through a country club, walking through a golf game. An older golfer gets upset that he's walking through their course and tries to hit him with a golf ball. This prompts D-Fens to pull out a gun blasting their cart and sending it into a pond. The man has a heart attack and explains that his heart pills are in the cart (which is in the water now) He asks "Aren't you sorry you couldn't just let me pass through. Now you're going to die wearing that funny little hat."
He finds a man having a barbecue with his family on a huge estate and discovers that the man is only the caretaker for the property. He takes the family with him when he hears security looking for him, frightening the man's little girl. He reveals to the family that he lost his job, describing himself as "obsolete" and "not economically viable" D-Fens panics momentarily looking at the little girl's hand which he was holding and now has blood on it. The caretaker points out that it was blood from his hand and she's fine. The caretaker offers to go with D-Fens, if he'll let his family go. D-fens seems offended by the idea, not understanding why he would want to hurt the family. D-Fens describes a fantasy version of his daughter's birthday party, which includes his ex wife holding his hand and all three of them going to sleep together.
The cops again leave Beth alone, reasoning again that he isn't coming or he would've been there by now.
He soon calls her from just outside their house, and Beth and Adelle have just enough time to get out the back door while D-Fens goes in the front. He sits in the living room watching home movies, which show a good amount of his daughter being terrified and him fighting with his wife.
Sandra and Prendergast discover that Nick from the surplus store was killed and stuffed into his own display case. They also find his ex wife's address. D-Fens sits in the house watching home videos. They find out that squad cars have been to the address three times that day and set out to go themselves, when Pendergast's wife calls the station. She gets upset when Sandra picks up the phone, and then complains that the cat scratched her. When Prendergast says something important has come up, she gets more upset claiming the cat scratch is important. He tells her he doesn't know when he's coming home and She starts screaming at him hysterically. He responds, "Amanda, Shut up. I'll get home when I'm finished and not one second before that. Is that clear?" She answers "You don't have to bite my head off!" He adds "And, you have dinner ready and waiting for me." Sandra is amused at the exchange, and as they head off they walk into a surprise party for his retirement, with a cake and even calling out a stripper for him.
Prendergast says he loves it but he has to go. One of the officers is offended and says "whatsamatter afraid of women too?"
Sandra's current partner says "I don't blame him. You ever met his wife?"
Prendergast asks, "What did you say?" and he says "Nothing." Sandra reminds him they don't have time to do this and he says "Yeah, you're right." He then punches Sandra's new partner, knocking him down before leaving.
Prendergast and Sandra find the house and D-Fens sees them pull up. Sandra goes in first and gets shot in the side. He tells someone to call an ambulance and starts chasing D-Fens on foot. D-Fens runs down a pier and his daughter sees him calling out "Daddy! Daddy!" He embraces Beth as if she's still his wife, although she protests. He then talks to his daughter and gives her a hug, while Beth tells him he needs to stop and he's sick and needs help. Prendergast catches up with them. He tells D-Fens his story, about his wife having a kid because he wanted one, and how his daughter just died in her sleep at two years old. Prendergast gives the little girl some popcorn which she shares with her dead. He puts down the gun to get a handful and Beth kicks it away, while Prendergast pulls his gun and a squad car heads towards them on the pier. He arrests D-Fens while Beth and Adelle run away. Prendergast asks him
"What were you gonna do?"
D-Fens: I don't know. I don't know what I'm gonna do.
Prendergast: Oh, guys like you always say you don't know what you're gonna do until you do it. I think you know exactly what you were gonna do. You were gonna kill your wife and child.
Prendergast: Yeah! And then you know, it'd be too late to turn back. It'd be real easy to turn the gun around on yourself. Now let's go meet some nice policemen. They're good guys. Come on. Let's go.
D-Fens: I'm the bad guy?
D-Fens: How'd that happen? I did everything they told me to. Did you know I build missiles?
D-Fens: I helped protect America. You should be rewarded for that, but then they give it to the plastic surgeons. You know, they lied to me.
Prendergast: Is that what this is about? You're angry because you got lied to? Is that why my chicken dinner's drying out in the oven? Hey, they lie to everybody. They lie to the fish. But that doesn't give you any special right to do what you did today. The only thing that makes you special is that little girl. Now let's go. Let's go!
D-Fens: It was hot today. Wasn't it? You know I got a gun, in my pocket. I got lots of guns.
Prendergast: Stay there. Don't move.
D-Fens: You wanna draw?
Prendergast: Let's not. Let's call it a day.
D-Fens: Oh come on. It's perfect. Showdown between the sheriff and the bad guy. It's beautiful. On three.
Prendergast: This doesn't have to be the end Bill. You have a choice. See my little girl is dead. I don't have a choice. You have a choice.
D-fens: No, you have two choices. I can kill you or you can kill me and my little girl can get the insurance. One...
Prendergast: Don't you want to see her grow up?
D-Fens: Behind bars? [shakes his head] two...
Prendergast: Don't do this. Please. Let's go!
D-Fens: Three..[reaches into pocket]
Prendergast shoots him and then realizes he only had a water gun. D-fens says "I would've got you." and falls over the edge of the pier into the water.
The press has already moved in and the Chief is now praising Prendergast, saying "one of their own" out everything together. The Chief asks Prendergast to comment. Prendergast says "Fuck you. Fuck you very much." in front of the cameras. Prendergast returns to Beth's house and finds Sandra being wheeled into the ambulance in stable condition. Beth tells him she hasn't told Adelle yet. People are lined up for Adelle's party, and he advises Beth to tell her tomorrow.
What About it?
"Falling Down" is a movie that, on different levels, everyone can relate to. I'd imagine we've all had days when we've "had enough" frustration, rudeness, and the lies we take for granted as part of our lives. We know that a hamburger will never match it's picture on the menu, but we live with it, because, short of pulling out a gun, that's just how it is. We know that the marketing rarely matches the product. Even here, the gun doesn't solve the dilemma, only affords an opportunity to point it out. Is it that far fetched to imagine that sitting in an unmoving car for hours, might cause someone to just leave it and walk wherever they need to go? There are stories all the time about people losing hold of what keeps their lives in order, often with disastrous consequences. How many people are one traffic jam away from "Falling Down?" I think it's a question worth considering.
While it would be easy to show D-Fens as a "hero" a common man, standing up for his rights. I like the fact that they don't do so here. We can identify with D-Fens, even cheer at some of the good points he makes. His position is not without some truth, but we also see that this man is deeply disturbed and his actions are not at all productive. While he points out the ridiculous nature of a fast food experience, he also terrorizes the customers, and workers, who have as little control over it as he does. He's angry because he's been "lied to." but the problem won't be solved by making a point with a gun. He's anger is deeper than that. When he expresses to the caretaker's family his fantasy birthday party that he's heading to, he says that "everything will be the way it was," meaning when he was married and had a job and a house and a family. D-Fens is angry with the idea of the American Dream not working out like he thought it was supposed to. At the end, he says "I did everything they told me." suggesting that he followed the steps, doing what he was "supposed to do" and his life should have worked out as a result.
He imagines that he had that Dream in the past, but when he watches the home movies at Beth's house, we see that even "the way it was." was far from happy. Perhaps he felt lied to, even then, seeing that his daughter had no interest in a hobby horse he'd bought, reasoning that he bought it for her, so she should like it. To him, anything that isn't that black and white is suspect. He's intent on how things should be, rather than what they are, because how things are has failed to make him happy.
We can't totally demonize D-Fens either. He's not a monster out to hurt innocents, but a guy who reaches a point where he believes he has nothing left. At the point where he leaves the car, he has pretended to go to work every day for a month, just to satisfy his mother, and his own self image. He's angry and impulsive, but he's not out to hurt people, only insistent that he won't tolerate being lied to anymore. His first outburst with the Korean shop owner sets the tone for his other outbursts. He simply wants change for a phone call and realizes the shop owner could easily help him, but chooses not to. Does he really care that the man charges 85 cents for soda? Probably not, it's the man's rudeness and indifference that sets him off. He has no hesitation to break merchandise which the shop owner paid for, but he gets offended when the man assumes he's being robbed, insisting on paying for his soda, although the damage he caused certainly makes the payment for the soda irrelevant. He's not interested in putting money in his pocket, he's mostly interested in being treated with respect.
One aspect of the movie, which I found sadly true, was the ease with which he found rudeness on his walk. The people he runs into are as rude as if it were a virtue and common courtesy were a sign of weakness. Everyone is defending their territory, although there is no real challenge to it. Rather than empathize, people say "can't" and "don't" casually. While we can understand that a fast food place has to switch from breakfast to lunch sometime, the uncaring deference to "the rules" and the treatment of customers as assembly line items is understandably upsetting. A little courtesy or empathy could make a big difference. However, D-Fens is guilty of the very thing that sets him off, by terrifying the customers at the restaurant, he himself shows a startling lack of empathy, which he doesn't consider, as he's focused on his point. He's an intelligent man but his obsessive focus blinds him to his own actions. All of his actions have a basis in his idea of justice, but he is unconcerned with consequences. We could look at his altercation with the gang members, could be seen as reasonable, and self defense, but many people end up injured or dead as a result. It's also telling that he shows no concern for the shooting victims, other than to locate the car and prove his point again to the gang members. D-Fens sees only absolutes, but doesn't imagine that he's a part of the problem as much as anyone else (and many times at this point, more)
We may imagine that standing up in protest, is a solution, but without forethought it not only accomplishes nothing, but harms the cause you seek to further. The audience to his actions learns nothing except that it's not wise to antagonize one who's so unhinged. At the other extreme we have Prendergast, a man who is just as knowledgeable about "being lied to" by the American Dream, but handles it in an entirely different way. Where D-Fens is impulsive, Prendergast is composed and mild. Yet, his way is not presented as a solution either. We see the conversations with his wife, who seemingly browbeats him endlessly. We see the same tendency in his dealings with his fellow officers. He projects mildness and gets riduled and scorned in return. Prendergast does have empathy though, perhaps more than is good for him. He accepts that he's been lied to, but also accepts that this fact doesn't give him "special rights." It's significant that D-Fens leaves a car in the middle of the road and Prendergast helps to push it out of the way. Prendergast endures many insults gracefully, but even he is not without a limit. His responses are however, proportionate to the offenses, and not delivered without regard to audience. He eventually tells his wife to shut up, and punches Sandra's partner for insulting his wife, but we don't see this as his natural mode of behavior, but as an acknowledgement, that there are some boundaries.
D-Fens pushes the boundary further with each altercation. After he kills Nick, he acknowledges that he's crossed the line, referring to "the point of no return." In his instance he again violates the principles he imagines he's trying to uphold. While most of us can see Nick is dangerous, and distubed, D-Fens despises the man so much that he puts aside what he'd told the man about freedom of speech, killing him because the man's interests disgusted him. Certainly this was fueled by anger at Nick's personal assault on him, but D-Fens was in a position to incapacitate the man as easily as kill him and stuff him in his own display case. D-Fens holds his principles so closely that he can't imagine he could violate them himself. But then, this is a man who has abandoned logic and rationality. He may well have passed the "point of no return" the minute he abandoned his car. Even then. he said he was "going home." referring to his ex wife's house as "home" It's quite possible that he was going to kill his wife and child, as an illogical gesture to make things "how they were." We can't know for sure, because he's stopped before he has the opportunity.
This character is in a kind of fog. For all of his talk about principles and rights, he doesn't have a statement to make. All of his incidents are only him reacting to what displeases him, with the exception of what happens when he reaches "home." He asks for consideration, receives rudeness and responds with violence, this is the pattern every time. He's expressing his anger at every outlet that presents himself, which is all the more frightening because he still believes himself an honest and good man.The scene with the care takers family illustrates this well. He doesn't intend to use them as hostages, but they respond to his attitude and his gun. He doesn't perceive himself as a threat and can't understand why they do. He's briefly upset at the thought that he may have hurt their little girl, one of the only displays of an emotion other than anger.
There's no question that Joel Shumacher presents an ugly, realistic world here. Douglas and Duvall both give tremendous performances and each works well as the other's foil. The easy rudeness, constant barrage of marketing messages, and everyday frustrations is a not at all unrealistic. He presents a picture of a man that would be difficult to praise, but easy to empathize with. D-Fens doesn't have any villain after him, except for life, it's difficulty and his own nature. Prendergast shows us another side, offering not a solution, as I doubt many would aspire to deal with his tribulations. He appears too understanding and becomes a victim, before making his own stand. Prendergast however, doesn't abandon the laws of civilization however, or appropriateness. But he's not our hero either, just another look at the ways people cope. His idea of "home" has been eradicated as much as that of D-Fens, but rather than retreat into delusion or lash out, he attempts to work with the pieces he has left, however difficult. But while D-Fens sees his life's difficulty as a personal attack, Prendergast accepts that everyone suffers.
"Is that what this is about? You're angry because you got lied to? Is that why my chicken dinner's drying out in the oven? Hey, they lie to everybody. They lie to the fish. But that doesn't give you any special right to do what you did today. The only thing that makes you special is that little girl."
He sees D-Fens as someone who has an option that he no longer has, and he empathizes with the man, insisting that he has a choice and hoping that he'll make the "right" one. Both men have big flaws in their approaches to dealing with life, and the only real solution offered is suggested when Nick the Nazi has D-Fens captive and he asks for his other hand. D-Fens of course can't give it to him because his other hand is balancing his weight. As he tells, Nick, he's stopped by "Gravity. I'll fall down" The wreckage of his life is as natural a thing as gravity, and his actions (as well as Prendergast's for most of the movie) are simply those of a man who leans too long on one arm or the other (logic and emotion) and finally gives up the last arm and loses his balance. Both men still have both arms, but the question is whether they've fallen too hard to remember they can use them, and the possibility that sometimes gravity is just too much.