FILM / We're not gonna take it any more: Falling Down, Joel Schumacher's journey into Taxi Driver and Network territory

Films that tell us everything stinks (if we were programming a retrospective we'd call it the Cinema of Grievance) are relatively rare - perhaps because feel-good Hollywood discriminates against the downbeat, perhaps because such films come from an unusual combination of impulses: a willingness to notice social misery plus a refusal of the politics that might begin to explain it. The world is a rotten place and nothing can be done - which is paradoxically a comforting thought. The result tends to be a visual rant, a hysterical presentation of evidence seeking to justify an inarticulate rage that already exists, and may actually have other causes.

Everything-stinks movies seem to have their roots in the Seventies, a decade which saw the genre's masterpiece (Taxi Driver) and at least one of its turkeys (Network). Joel Schumacher's new film, Falling Down (18), wants to be Taxi Driver and edges into Network territory more than once, but it is in its own way a disturbing piece of work. As with some of Oliver Stone's films, it's hard to decide whether it's a fascist movie made by a liberal or a liberal film made by a fascist. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between a hawk on good behaviour and a dove on steroids. But Falling Down, thanks to Ebbe Roe Smith's screenplay (his first to be produced) is at least an eerily well modulated rant, a bizarre cocktail of paranoid anger and political correctness - as if the film-makers wanted to make the year's most controversial film, while also leaning over backwards not to give offence.

Bill Foster (Michael Douglas), stuck in a traffic-jam, becomes so frustrated that he simply leaves his car and walks off. In this opening sequence Schumacher tries to convey the character's state of mind purely by cinematic means (there is no dialogue as yet). He's just not up to the task, and his failure is abject. Only when Michael Douglas starts mining his own rich vein of nastiness does the film begin to come to life. The attractiveness of Douglas's early performances has long since evaporated, making him the most charmless leading man in Hollywood (runner-up, Kevin Costner) and it's only roles like this one, or Gordon Gekko in Wall Street, that free him up to try something else.

Foster's antagonist is a policeman called Prendergast (Robert Duvall), so near to retirement he can almost taste it. It's his last day. His colleagues are playing practical jokes on him, filling his desk drawer with sand, for instance, and reminding him of policemen who've actually been killed on their last day of work (in their last hour, even). It is Prendergast who realises that a series of apparently unconnected incidents (a fight in a park, gun play in a fast-food joint) involve a single man making a pedestrian beeline across town, but his importance in the film is that he reacts to the same stimuli as Foster without losing control. He's there to show the audience that you do have a choice. He's a counter-weight calibrated almost to laboratory standards. When we first see him, he's even caught in the same traffic-jam as Foster, except that he is relaxed, if not actually amused by the breakdown around him.

To walk away from your car is the Los Angeles version of suicide, an almost unimaginable abandonment of the self. There is a dark wit to the idea that a man on foot becomes oddly invisible to the authorities in a city where the language of law enforcement effortlessly accommodates those who shoot without bothering to leave their vehicles (this is called a 'drive-by'). Perhaps there are also echoes of the Burt Lancaster film The Swimmer, where a man makes a ritual progress across an increasingly alienated landscape towards a home that isn't there. Foster is going 'home' for his daughter's birthday, but his wife is estranged from him and even has a restraining order to keep him at a distance.

Much care has been given to shaping Foster's drift from exasperation into violence: it is a meticulously structured rampage. He only ever retaliates to real or perceived aggression, and he never offers violence to women or children. He doesn't set out to arm himself, and even his accidental escalation into weaponry, from baseball bat to knife to gun to disposable bazooka, rehearses his basic sense of powerlessness when it ends with a water pistol.

The misery on the street is depicted as real when it occupies the background, but those who make personal approaches to Foster for help are hustlers and liars. Some of his violent encounters are with other races (a Korean shop owner, Hispanic gang members) but we see him deal perfectly happily with an Afghani street seller, and he identifies with a black man carrying a placard that reads Not Economically Viable, who has been refused a loan.

Some of the film's unpredictable alternations of politically correct and incorrect attitudes are wryly amusing. When Foster's estranged wife (Barbara Hershey) calls the police after receiving menacing calls from him, she has to deal with polite but not very helpful men. Finally, when we see a policewoman get out of the squad car, it looks as if her fears will be taken seriously - but not at all. The policewoman is brusque and unsympathetic, almost resentful.

One of the dynamics of the screenplay is undoubtedly that the white-collar hero starts out as a sort of Everyman, a member of a class and a race that sees itself somehow as hitting back even when attacking (just as other classes and races are judged to be aggressive even when defending themselves), but that as we learn more about him his anger becomes less defensible. In America, admittedly the revelation that Foster has been made redundant from the defence industry isn't the automatic sympathy-killer it is likely to be in Britain. But there is a good moment late on in the film, when we see a video from Foster's married life in which he is thoroughly bullying to his little daughter, at a period when he has no social excuses.

Another superimposed dynamic of the screenplay is more suspect: we are encouraged to think (though Foster's grievances are wrong-headed and even comic - tirades against plastic surgeons, golf club members) that in his rancour he has a point, now and then. In any case, the strict symmetry between the anti-hero and the Robert Duvall character, while it tells us that one is wrong and the other right, defines American reality and American values with extraordinary narrowness. These men, and not the diversity that swills around them, are America.

More to the point, there is a subtle trade-off between the protagonists. Foster is shown to be wrong in exporting his breakdown into the world, but Prendergast learns that in one area of life he isn't right either. In the Cinema of Grievance there is always a search going on for someone to blame, and Falling Down makes an unexpected breakthrough just near its end. We have seen that Foster's mother collects glass animals, which even without the Tennessee Williams echo indicates that she hasn't grown up, and hasn't let her son grow up. Prendergast handles her expertly, but then he's had enough practice, from dealing with his wife (Tuesday Weld, playing the ageing-blonde-neurosis role once monopolised by the late Sandy Dennis). It's even hinted that his wife killed their child, who was certainly rather old to fall victim to cot death.

While tracking Foster down, Prendergast learns to stop being henpecked and to stand up for himself. The mother who's like a wife, the wife who's like a nagging mother. It turns out that we didn't need to look at society after all. There is a simple explanation for the world being out of kilter.

(Photograph omitted)