The Nolanverse begins here. And for someone now delivering the highest-powered movie juggernauts globally – that are not superhero or James Cameron movies – and ones intrinsically linked with the “art” of predictive programming, it’s interesting to note familiar themes of identity and limited perception of reality in this low-key, low-budget and low-running time (we won’t see much of the latter again) debut. And, naturally, non-linear storytelling. Oh, and that cool, impersonal – some might say clinical – approach to character, subject and story is also present and correct.
Some of which, one might reasonably assert, is simply down to the limitations of a cast of non-professional actors. Unsurprisingly, Nolan comes armed with a strong premise – his protagonist develops a “pastime” of following strangers around and develops a set of rules to ensure it never becomes dangerous – but I suspect, in part, it’s his savvy of coming up with a twist that got Following noticed. This was, after all, the period of The Usual Suspects, Seven, 12 Monkeys and L.A. Confidential, when pulling the rug from under the viewer had an “artistic”, rather than merely crude, gimmicky (M Night is just around the corner) cachet. With its narrator/flashback structure, Following appears to be mimicking Bryan Singer’s film, in particular (or rather, Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay).
Our lack of understanding of the full picture is crucial to Nolan’s picture, even as our omniscient narrator knows – or thinks he knows – what is going on “now”. Albeit, while Nolan starts off with the apparent intention to deliver a straight recounting of events, he quickly succumbs to leaping about the place in his attempts to keep the viewer off balance; this would be far more successful in his next picture, where it is intrinsic to the character, rather than simply a tricksy device.
Bill: It was supposed to be completely random. And when it stopped being random, that’s when it started to go wrong.
Bill/Daniel (Jeremy Theobald) begins following Cobb (Alex Haw), who notices his tail and confronts him; Cobb reveals his not dissimilar deviancy. He is a burglar, but rather than seeking to make a packet, his interest is in the lives of his victims, determining their characters and making choices on the scene that will disrupt their lives (beyond simply violating their property). He attempts to make it sound as if he is performing a public service, putting his victims in touch with what they had and their priorities. He successfully inveigles Bill, who becomes involved with one of their targets, the Blonde (Lucy Russell). Bill agrees to help her out with regard to a blackmail situation, but during his theft of the evidence on her, he beats a man with a claw hammer.
The twist reveal is that Cobb and the Blonde have been working together to implicate Bill in a burglary committed by Cobb – whereby Cobb claims he found a murdered woman at the scene of one of his break-ins – but this in turn gives way to a further reveal that Cobb has been lying to the Blonde too, such that Bill will be implicated in her murder.
While the first of these twists is neat enough, the second isn’t altogether satisfying. The Blonde being duped follows on too quickly from the revelation that Bill has been to have much impact, and the policeman (Nolan’s uncle John) seems remarkably open-and-shut in his attitude towards a man who would surely be very stupid to turn himself in and concoct a story in the hope it dissuaded them of all the evidence pointing at him.
The biggest problem is performative, though. Nolan isn’t known for his movies’ carrying much emotional import or weight, and Following starts as he means to go on. That’s usually more excusable for his getting in skilled actors to emote the blanks, though. There’s no such luck here. Haw is okay being a smug know-it-all; his traversing such scenes as being happened upon by a returning flat owner and the same person appearing during lunch are among Following’s best. But Theobald is quite stiff, such that the overall effect is one of an intellectual exercise rather than a strong movie in its own right.
Nolan clearly enjoys his Russian doll of revealed perception, or deception, and its notable that Bill will attempt to change his persona – dressing like Cobb, who shares a name with DiCaprio’s character in Inception – in a manner not entirely unlike Batman. The choice of black and white apparently came from practicality – the budget was so low, natural light was the only real option in terms of cinematography – but it adds a degree of stylisation that helps take up some of the slack.
Given Nolan’s attempts to show his auteur-ish cred subsequently, however, it’s sobering that two other, very different stylists hit the ground running the same year – Darren Aronofsky with Pi and Guy Ritchie with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – something that rather underlines Nolan’s major strength as a conceptualist rather than as a visual craftsmen (I’ve said this numerous times, but for someone who focuses on the action genre, his martialling of spatial geography is not so hot at all).
I’m sure Nolanites will venerate Following as the triumphant start to a career that’s now encroaching on the quarter-of-a-century mark. I’d suggest all the elements, good and bad are there nascently, but it remains very much a minor work, and its main idea – the voyeuristic angle – is actually more interesting than the place he takes it (a more standard-issue framing twist).