#10 in my ranking of Christopher Nolan’s films.
This is the rougher form of manipulation and time jumping that Nolan would use to greater effect in Memento, making this almost feel like a practice run for his real breakout film. That being said, Following, the tiny $6,000 movie Nolan made on weekends for a year is still a fun neo-noir that manages to use its fractured structure to effectively deliver an entertaining experience that, while unrefined, still shows real promise. It reminds me of Kubrick’s Fear and Desire in terms of look and production methods, though Nolan started off on a far stronger foot than the late master.
The story is about a young, aimless wannabe writer, Bill, who starts following random people on the street to fill his days. He’s careful about it at first, following a certain set of rules that he steadily begins to break until confronted by one of his targets, a man named Cobb. Cobb is a burglar who approaches his work with a philosophical bent, using his criminal acts in a way to drive the people he burgles into reconsidering their lives through their relationship to the things that he disturbs and takes. This form of voyeurism obviously has an appeal to the voyeuristic Bill who ends up taking up Cobb’s mission as his own.
Told out of sequence, the structure often ends up feeling a bit random, flipping through about four different time periods, Bill’s confession to the police at the end, his meeting and early apprenticeship with Cobb, his dating with the Blonde whom they robbed, and his burglary of a club owned by the Blonde’s gangster ex-boyfriend. The intercutting doesn’t often inform one element to the next, and the placement of scenes seems haphazard most of the time rather than intentional until the ending, which is actually cut together really well. There’s also an emotional void at the center of this film, and I think it has something to do with the movie’s brevity.
Following is a grand 70 minutes long, and it never feels like a shortened idea stretched too far. It actually feels like an idea properly fitted towards a shorter feature length rather than the bare-minimum for the classification that’s been cut a bit short. The missing bits should have come from the relationship between Bill and the Blonde. It doesn’t really matter that we don’t know her name, but the problem is that their relationship feels barely formed by the time double-crosses and betrayals start happening. She’s not some femme fatale of the classic noir films, at least she’s not built that way in the movie, but she feels like a girl caught up in Bill and Cobb’s trap that Bill ends up manipulating towards his own personal ends by pursing a relationship with her. However, their relationship never feels terribly real, and the thinness robs the later double cross of any emotional power. Another 10-15 minutes just making that relationship feel alive could have been what this movie needed to be in order to transform from a solid directorial debut into something more special.
That being said, this movie does look and feel like a production done with the barest of shoestring budgets. Handheld camera work, black and white film stock, and very simple camera coverage setups seem derived from an effort to get as much footage as possible on a given Saturday rather than to help visualize the story in a cinematic way. It’s brutal and efficient, and probably the best Nolan could do under the circumstances. His focus was the structure of the editing and script, of course, those things that he could offer something new on rather than on the actual production with only $6,000 and the good graces of those involved.
All that being said, the ending is really quite satisfying as we watch Nolan bring together the different puzzle pieces. Bill has been set up from the beginning, and the cross-cutting between the Blonde’s final moments with Cobb and the resolution of Bill’s interview with the police provide the same kind of new color to the rest of the film that Memento‘s ending did. However, because of the inelegance of most of the movie’s cross-cutting and the thin nature of Bill’s relationship with the Blonde, it has a muted impact beyond the thrill of seeing interconnecting pieces thrown together snugly.
As a debut feature, Following shows much promise. It’s intelligently written with an eye towards a specific ending, though the emotional impact is limited and some of the early editing choices lend themselves to confusion more than anything else. However, because the ending feels so satisfying, despite lacking the kind of gut punch one might expect from some of the revelations, it papers over most of the earlier hiccups and wraps up the film with a nice sense of flair.