Following, Christopher Nolan’s 1998 feature film debut, is the culmination of all of his following features, with major connections to Memento (2000) and Inception (2010). This slim film, running at only 70 minutes, is an update on the film noir genre, a neo-noir if you will. It opens with our central character, billed as the Young Man, telling his side of the story (think Billy Wilder’s 1944 film Double Indemnity) to the police. The film then unfolds, like its younger brother Memento, without caring about a linear/chronological outline. We get scenes out of order, but unlike Memento, this film separates itself even more; in Memento we at least get scenes that connect the forward and reverse plot lines, but Following completely dissociates from this. However, don’t be concerned: the film isn’t that confusing (just pay attention to the appearance of the Young Man and one can follow how the film plays out); plus, there is also a linear edit of the film, but I suggest watching the original film first.
The Young Man (Jeremy Theobald), who has been following random individuals, comes into contact with Cobb (Alex Haw), who finds it fascinating to break into others homes and loot their personal belongings; Cobb (yes, the same name as Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Inception), instead of focusing on stealing jewelry and other pricey items, likes to take the homeowner’s photos and other personal effects to get a better understanding of them, get into their psyche a little bit. Reminds you of Inception’s Cobb, doesn’t it?
As the Young Man begins to trust him, he also begins breaking into homes, including the home of a woman, billed as the Blonde (Lucy Russell). Almost a rip-off of Hitchcock’s infamous blonde leading ladies, this is our femme fatale, a staple in many films noir. She certainly seduces our central character, earning her trust quite quickly. Unfortunately for the Young Man, Cobb and the Blonde are in cahoots and have set up the Young Man for a failure. I won’t tell you how everything pans out, but it’s a great and revealing ending. It may not be a blockbuster like Nolan’s other films (the Batman trilogy, for example), but all of his later films stem from Following.
What is so fascinating about this film is that it was made on a spectacularly tiny budget, roughly $5,000. Nolan not only directed the film, but he was also the camera operator, writer, editor, and co-producer. Filming took place whenever there was enough money, mostly on weekends, and took a full year to produce; Nolan even had to buy the 16 mm film stock to make the film. Lighting equipment was virtually nonexistent, and so natural lighting was employed (at no cost!), making it understandable as to why 16 mm film was used. It’s truly a triumph on such a small budget using non-professional equipment and first-time actors. Following is biting and sharp, grisly and yet seductive, edgy and gritty but somehow refined and smooth.
It reminds me of the best of Alfred Hitchcock’s films. An ordinary man in extraordinary (well, at least different from his ordinary) circumstances, a cool blonde, and a lethal antagonist who keeps you on the edge of your seat. But it’s almost more than that. The nonlinear plot line makes it. It’s not the first film that makes the viewer think, and it most certainly wasn’t, and won’t be, the last, but it’s a film that reflects the audience’s thoughts. We don’t know who we can trust in the film—they all seem like unreliable characters—and we’re trying to figure out who the characters are as the characters themselves are doing the same thing. Just like Cobb and the Young Man, we’ve become voyeurs into their lives and we want to know every single detail about them, but we can’t because Nolan doesn’t allow us to. It’s like us he leaves us a bunch of puzzle pieces that fit together but have different pictures on each piece. Now, that’s not to say that we don’t get clear pictures of the characters, but they’ve each put up masks and we have to work at removing those masks in order to understand the characters, all the while being thrown back and forth in time.
Following was a great start to a not too shabby career for Christopher Nolan. Even though he has branched out and done a number of films, they all do truly stem from his feature debut. I may still prefer Memento over Following, though I must confess that it has been a few years since I’ve seen the former (plus Memento was my first Nolan film), Following is exceptional and is, in my opinion, a bit better than his later films; general audiences, however, will probably disagree.
Go on, check out Following: you won’t be disappointed. Here’s a quick little video, provided by the Criterion Collection, about Nolan’s beginnings: