NRH’s Weekly Analysis: Nihilism in Falling Down


To me, at least, it came as a surprise that Joel ‘Batman & Robin‘ Schumacher directed Falling Down. Falling Down, for the most part, is a very high-voltage social piece set within the confines of one man man’s lone journey into madness, chaos and absolute nihilistic indulgence. The film charts the protagonist as he flees from stagnant traffic and embarks on a simple quest; to get to his daughter for her birthday. Social dis-order, cultural collapse and a general sense of ‘stagnancy’ punctuate the film into a reflection on modern nihilism. 

In this Weekly Analysis I’ll be taking a hammer to Falling Down‘s social commentary and what exactly it says about the modern human condition. This is a very odd film, one that shows how easily that chaos can suddenly erupt in our society knitted out of social regret and nine-to-five servitude. It’s filled with little pieces of nationalistic critique too but, for the most, we’ll focus on the cheeriest of subjects. The pointlessness of existence. 

Falling Down starts in a space of stagnancy. Trapped on a highway in congested traffic, something ripped out of our everyday life. The hero – William – looks around and finds decay, white noise and nothing to really cling on to. A fly buzzes about the car and there’s a palpable sense of the Summer’s humidity. He’s drowning in absolute stagnation and so, as you do, he decides to betray the billboards, to betray the advertisements. ‘Freedom’. We’ll soon find out William works for a ‘d-fens’ company, specializing in missile technology. He seems to find, in this moment, that there’s nothing truly worthwhile fighting for.

The anarchy that follows is near comical. Some people read Falling Down as the epitome of ‘black comedy’ and it’s easy to see why. William walks into a shop, picks up a coke can, letting it numb his mind, and is then outraged at its price. He still, to his credit, still pays the exact price negotiated, even saying it was a “pleasure frequenting your establishment”. In the tussle however, quite blatantly, he bashes some American flags down on to the floor. It’s a pretty explicit hit at the truth behind the fragility of American nationalism; that the society itself is held together by literally paper-thin ideology and patchwork symbology. This is what I think is the point of Falling Down, it shows us the truth behind how the flags and imagery are simple props that people cling on to in a world devoid of meaning and sanity.

On the flip side of Falling Down we’re treated to the story of Prendergast, a man mere inches away from his retirement. We learn soon enough that he’s doing it reluctantly out of the half-love of his wife. He is, however, mocked and put down by his co-workers – “watch out for paper cuts!” – and any effort of police work he attempts is met by shrugging off and belittlement. At one point, when describing William’s appearance, someone says that he looks “just like” Prendergast’s attire. The duality of the men, that either of them could have had this mental breakdown, is what Falling Down also rests upon. Both the prop of nationalism and the potential volatility of everybody.

William’s journey isn’t exactly glorified but it is given a sense of certain dark heroism. He acquires more power as the story progresses, a baseball bat, an uzi, more weapons, army gear and so on. At the start of Prendergast’s story, however, he is stripped of his handgun. He is marginalized into a position of powerlessness. The film does gloss over some of the biggest expressions of power, such as when William fires a bloody rocket launcher (after being taught, hilariously, by a child how to fire it) but it’s otherwise stated that those who escape society, who reveal its artifice, seem to have more fun and freedom than those who do not.

Both Prendergast and William have lost their children, to different forces. Children are used throughout as a device to show the true ‘decay’ of society. They fire water pistols, practice war games and know how to use rocket launchers. They even try and answer a mad man’s question, when William is ‘shooting’ up the fast food joint. During the fast food scene William makes the point that the burger he gets looks nothing like the “juicy” one seen in the advertisements. He sees America as the created fable that it is, existence being simple nihilistic jelly.

None of this is practically true, by the way. Falling Down is a black comedy that stretches a social commentary about the stagnancy and pointlessness behind the modern American dream and moulds it into a caricatured nightmare. It’s a great film but, well, I’ve never said this in a Weekly Analysis, it goes beyond its own means. It’s a great exploration of some nihilistic thematics but when we’re being shoved bullets, class-conflict and literal Nazis into our faces then it’s kinda discomforting to argue that this a film well-versed in the art of subtlety. It’s a comedy though and I guess that keeps it from being a dreadful misfire of social cynicism.

“If everybody will get out of my way nobody will get hurt”. William challenges Prendergast, in his final moments, as to who is the exact ‘bad guy’. He’s a divorced man trying to see his child on her birthday. The film is a constant tug of wag of sympathy with the rope stitched out of sheer nihilism. Everyone but Prendergast and William seems to see nothing wrong with the world and, well, we’re asked if there is indeed anything. Are we falling apart? Are their views on how truly ‘broken’ society is actually broken in and of themselves?

Falling Down asks some important questions about our modern day existence and the transition of humanity into this nine-to-five creature that prays for the weekends to come quicker. It resonates deeply with office life, modern stagnancy and, as we’ve explored, nihilistic philosophy. There is, however, a profound point to be found underneath the rubble of all this pointless business. Children, life, food, pleasure – all of these things are found to be worthwhile. Prendergast finds joy in victories and William seeks out his children. Even these men are able to find hopeful shards in their respective broken worlds.