Currently revelling in the success of his Batman trilogy closer The Dark Knight Rises, it’s clear that British director Christopher Nolan has developed a knack for creating blockbuster films with an ingrained intelligent pulse. From Batman to Inception, his oeuvre has many familiar traits, with recurring ensemble cast members like Christian Bale and Michael Caine in front of the camera, and masterful D.P. Wally Pfister controlling from behind. But what is a more striking line in Nolan’s comparatively lightweight collection of eight feature films are the common themes of time, isolation and the illusion of identity. Weighty stuff dealt with great care and tenacity even in his gritty-noir debut Following (1998).
Jeremy Theobald is the apathetic creative Bill, aka “The Young Man”. Suffering from writer’s block, he starts following random strangers around the streets of London as a desperate means of inspiration and connection to the world. Bill’s voyeurism turns dangerous when he hides in the shadows of a tall dark stranger who, after a confrontation over coffee, reveals himself to be Mr. Cobb (Alex Haw), a smooth-talking house-burglar who similarly gets an indescribable thrill from peeking into the clandestine lives of others. Taking Bill under his wing, Cobb turns the lonely stalker into a dapper burglar. Learning the tricks of the trade and back on a writing streak, Bill meets the unnamed blond femme fatale destined to turn his life of petty crime into a much darker affair.
Presented as a fragmented film noir, Following structurally resembles his lauded follow-up Memento. Unlike that Guy Pearce-fronted film (my favourite from Nolan, FYI), this ambitious debut is eventually rather convoluted. With rambling narration and entwined love subplots, not to mention some often cringeworthy acting from the amateur cast, Following ends up resembling a David Lynch directed episode of a crime-centric soap opera. Certainly not a bad thing, but not all that appealing.
To be fair, this is wholeheartedly a student project and labour of love for Nolan. Developed over a year’s worth of weekends on a £6000 budget with novice an amateur cast and crew, it’s a defiant first start. Credited as director, producer, writer and editor of the feature, Following is perhaps the purest Nolan film so far too. A wrestling and arresting crime drama filmed lusciously on grainy 16mm stock, it just about manages to hold your attention for it’s nominal seventy minutes running time. Nowhere near perfect, but certainly a glowing prognosticator of the bright, bat-shit crazy things to come.