Rediscover: Following (1998)
Dir: Christopher Nolan
Rediscover is a series of reviews highlighting past releases that have flown under the radar and now deserve a second look.
It seems easy to be a one-hit wonder as a filmmaker. Make a neat indie flick that gets the attention of critics and audiences alike, you can parlay that into being a studio hack directing romantic comedies and potboiler thrillers and making easy money.
It could have happened to Christopher Nolan. Somehow, it didn’t. Memento, with its highly unconventional retro-linear narrative (Is that a term? Because I’m coining it) could have been a flash-in-the-pan for the director. It almost seemed that way when he remade Erik Skjoldjærg’s amoral Insomnia into tepid Hollywood fare (Final pained words of the film: “Just let me… sleep…”), but then he redefined Batman in film (twice!) and delivered The Prestige, which won my heart by casting David Bowie as Nikola Tesla.
Now Christopher Nolan is a beloved director and sleeps on a pile of money every night. After his recent cinematic victories, his very first film, Following, a black-and-white film noir shot in 1996 and released in 1998 has been largely ignored.
Following’s protagonist, credited as “The Young Man” (Jeremy Theobald), is a loner and aspiring writer who follows around strangers for inspiration whilst looking the result of throwing Edward Norton, James McAvoy, Thom Yorke, and Peter Gabriel into a blender. In the opening voiceover, The Young Man explains, he has become addicted to the act of following strangers and he’s broken one of his rules: never follow the same person twice. Enter Cobb (Alex Haw), a proto-Tyler Durden who burgles houses to learn about people in a similar way to The Young Man’s following. Soon enough the film turns into a pseudo-noir that I dare not spoil lest I eliminate much of the reason for watching.
Following is a film that comes out of a desperation to successfully produce. Most films would give us 20 minutes or so of The Young Man’s normal routine of tailing people, then segue into Act 2 when Cobb catches him. Nolan, however, gets through the set-up with a voice-over so he can get to the meat of the story. Knowing that the film was shot on weekends over the course of the year due to the actors’ full-time jobs further explains this rush: the shorter, the better. While most script readers would throw Nolan’s across the room for such a transgression, it turns out to be one of the film’s wisest decision. Had we been given the intriguing set-up of The Young Man just following people, the sudden move into a crime film would have felt like a betrayal, and I was already feeling miffed that it was a crime film and not a character study. Instead, The Young Man’s obsession is a mere catalyst for the less-interesting crime story, making it a bit of a wasted opportunity.
The presentation is what kept me watching. We know now that Nolan loves non-linear narratives, and the use of it in Following is impressive, especially for a first film. It juggles three alternate narratives taking place during separate points in the story’s timeline that, as the pieces gradually fall into place, reveal several lovely twists that would be impossible to surprise the audience with if the scenes put in chronological order. Memento is probably a better use of the device considering the protagonist’s short-term memory problem and its link to his motivations.
Christopher Nolan crafted a short story-caliber narrative (complete with twist) and told it in 70 minutes, so it’s not nearly as bloated as it could have been. It’s the length and the non-linearity that make the small-time crime story easy to swallow. And let’s not forget it was his first film, and Following is nothing if not a promising start.