United Kingdom, 1998
R (Violence, Profanity)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell
[Warning: Spoilers ahead! Proceed only if you have seen the movie or don't care about having some of the plot revealed.]
If Following had been Christopher Nolan's calling card, it would have left a definite impression. However, although this was Nolan's directorial debut, it languished without theatrical or DVD distribution until Memento became a mammoth art house hit. The sophomore effort therefore paved the way for the freshman outing to be seen by a wide audience of appreciative fans. But in part because the movie never arrived with much fanfare and in part because it's in black-and-white, Following remains an obscure entry on Nolan's filmography even though it is unquestionably the work of the man who turned the superhero genre upside down with his iconoclast vision of the Batman saga.
Following is closer to true "film noir" than its so-called offspring, "neo-noir." The difference between the two is often typified by the presence (or absence) of color. Following not only showcases the narrative and thematic characteristics of the earlier genre but its black-and-white cinematography gives primacy to light, darkness, and the shadows that caper between the two. The look of Following hearkens back if not to the '30s and '40s (when film noir was at its peak) then to the '60s. And, of course, there's one name it's impossible not to mention when discussing Following because his posthumous fingerprints can be seen on nearly every aspect. It has become something of a cliché to evoke "Hitchcock" any time a director plays in a corner of the playground the Master of Suspense dominated, but this is one instance when the comparisons are earned.
The Hitchcock influences are exemplified by the black-and-white aesthetic, although one wonders whether Nolan, given his druthers, would have preferred to craft a color film. (Certainly, it would have been easier to sell.) The decision to make the movie this way was dictated as much by economics as artistry. Following was made on a shoestring budget over a year-long period with nonprofessional actors who could only donate their time on weekends. While the finished product has some rough edges, it looks far more professional than one would suppose from a movie fashioned under such constraints.
Memento is perhaps the ultimate example of non-linear storytelling but Nolan was already playing with mixed-up chronologies in Following. The movie is presented in such a way that the viewer is often unsure where in the timeline any given scene is unfolding. There's a method to the seemingly haphazard manner in which events are presented. The atypical approach enhances the capacity for surprising developments, keeps viewers on their toes, and allows Nolan to stay a step or two ahead of the audience, which is always an asset for a mystery/thriller.
The story begins with a brief meditation on voyeurism as related by the protagonist, a young man sometimes called Bill (Jeremy Theobald). He explains his philosophy of "following" - how he picks someone at random and pursues that person for an undetermined period of time. As he observes these individuals, he constructs stories about who they are and what they're doing. One of his rules is never to follow the same person more than once - a precept he breaks with a well-dressed man possibly named Cobb (Alex Haw) - an action he comes to regret. Cobb has noticed Bill's attention but, rather than running from it, he courts it. He has a proposition he believes to be perfect for Bill. Cobb, a burglar, is searching for a partner to help with his escapades. He's not an ordinary criminal, however. He breaks into places not only for material gain but in order to insert himself into the lives of others. He gets a vicarious thrill out of his exploits and he wants to introduce Bill into his world.
Bill is easily seduced by Cobb and views the latter as a mentor without thinking too deeply about whether Cobb might have other motives which, of course, he does. Bill also falls into relationship with a blonde (Lucy Russell) whose flat he burglarizes. Things seem to be going well for him until he stumbles into a carefully prepared trap. Still, there appears to be a way out if he comes clean to the police... or is that just part of the overall scheme?
Nolan is clever enough to recognize that every movie of this sort employs a twist. To that end, he provides the expected one then tops it with a second, more craftily constructed one. Many viewers will see the first contortion coming. In fact, they may guess it before its reveal. The second, however, will take most audience members unawares. Placement is a key with this one - coming so soon after the first surprise, it retains the capacity to shock. Once we understand what's really going on, all the pieces of the broken chronology snap into place. The manner in which the story is presented makes the reveal more dramatic than had things been set out in a linear fashion.
The acting is one area where Following doesn't excel. It's not horrible but it's obvious none of the performers are professionals. The most deficient of the three leads is Lucy Russell, whose interpretation of the femme fatale is lackluster. She's not sexy, sultry, or desirable. Nolan never gives her a name (she's referred to simply as "The Blonde") but Russell fails to impart her with any discernable character traits. A part of me wonders what Following might have been like with more accomplished actors in the key parts.
There's also a structural problem. To convey the double twist, Nolan breaks the cardinal "show, don't tell" rule. Part of this is likely the result of budgetary constraints, but it's not entirely satisfying to have major plot points unveiled during a conversation. It feels a little like a cheat. (To be fair, Hitchcock was guilty of this from time-to-time.) Fortunately, the second twist isn't revealed in as obvious a fashion. There's more artistry involved to engage the viewer.
As a taught, tightly constructed motion picture, Following offers just over an hour's worth of solid entertainment. Although the script isn't as deep or rich as any of Nolan's subsequent efforts, it functions as a template for what is to come, and that may be the most fascinating aspect of the movie. It's always interesting to see where an acclaimed director began, whether that director is Martin Scorsese (working for Roger Corman on Boxcar Bertha), Steven Spielberg (the made-for-TV thriller Duel), James Cameron (Piranha 2: The Spawning), or Nolan. The foundation laid by Following has resulted in some memorable follow-up productions.
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