Director Dissection: Christopher Nolan – Following (1998)

Director Dissection is a series of posts highlighting a specific director with the intention of reviewing all of their directorial efforts, while gaining a better understanding of their work as a whole and showcasing their lesser known films. Christopher Nolan, a favorite of mine, is the first in the series and my goal is to get through his filmography before his next movie The Dark Knight Rises is released on July 20, 2012. Following is available on Netflix Watch Instantly. 

Following. Dir. Christopher Nolan. New Wave Films, 1998. 70 mins.

In his 1998 directorial debut, Christopher Nolan (writing credit as well) tells the story of an unemployed lonely Londoner (Jeremy Theobald), who wants to be a writer. To stave off boredom and to help him develop characters, he “shadows” people to learn a little bit about their life (which he assures the policeman, which he is being interviewed by, “was not a sex thing”). He starts to shadow a young, seemingly successful man, Cobb (Alex Haw), who quickly catches on to his shadow. Cobb reveals that he is a burglar and invites the Young Man, who introduces himself as “Bill”, to join him on his next target. Cobb explains his craft, a focus not necessarily on valuables, but rather on personal items. A way of showing the victim what they had by taking it away.

The Young Man enjoys the experience and Cobb becomes his mentor. “Bill” adopts a more appropriate wardrobe and haircut for his new life as a thief and gains some economic freedom when Cobb gives him a credit card under the name Daniel Lloyd. They burgle a young blonde women’s (Lucy Russell) apartment and “Bill” forms a connection with her while rifling through her things. He follows her and forces a relationship between them. At the request of the Blonde, the Young Man agrees to rob a pub, who’s owner has photos that she says he (the Bald Man) is blackmailing her. While at the pub he is disturbed by a man whom he attacks with a hammer, not sure if he has killed him or knocked him out. When he looks at the pictures they are innocuous modeling shots, so he confronts the Blonde. She admits that she has been working with Cobb to deflect suspicion off of Cobb in regards to the murder of an old woman during one of his burglaries. They have manipulated the young man into accepting Cobb’s methods, to create another suspect.

In the hopes of clearing his name, the Young Man turns himself in, where we found him to start the film. At the same time, the Blonde reports to Cobb of their success, only to discover that Cobb has been working for the Bald Man. Cobb is hired to kill the Blonde, he needed a fall guy for her murder, so he lured the Young Man into his trap. Having him accept his method and planting evidence to implicate him in the Blonde’s murder along the way. As the Young Man is confessing to the police, he learns that there was no murdered old woman, and the police were investigating the Blonde’s death. Cobb has successfully tagged the Young Man with all of his crimes. Cobb disappears into a crowd.

Following (1998) Dir. Christopher Nolan

Having a decent knowledge of Noaln’s later work, it is interesting to see what themes and techniques used in Following have influenced his other films (Particularly Memento, The Prestige, and Inception). Quite possibly Nolan’s most utilized technique, non-linear story telling, is used rather masterfully in Following, especially considering it is Nolan’s first feature (For first viewing its helpful to pay close attention to the physical appearance of the protagonist). The technique isolates the audience from the traditional Hollywood progression and emphasizes the character arc from beginning to end. Usually coupled with the technique of starting his films with the end or climactic scene, Nolan reveals the story well before character justification is known. Your concentration while watching the film changes from what will happen, to how and why it does. How does the Young Man end up engrossed in a criminal world, completely disregarding his most crucial rule of shadowing, “when it stopped being random, that’s when it started to go wrong”? Why does the young man so blindly “follow” Cobb?

The progression of scenes also puts you in the mind of the protagonist. His confusion in the opening scene is felt by the viewer throughout the film, much in the same way the Young Man is figuring out how Cobb has painted him into this corner, the viewer must piece together the story in the same way. While logistically this technique works flawlessly, Nolan taps into the true potential of the maze that non-linear story can create for the viewer in Memento and The Prestige.

“been to a football match just to let your eyes rise and go over– drift across a crowd of people, and then slowly start to fix on one person?”

In Following the themes of truth and trust are explored. What is true, and what appears to be true? How do character’s relationships affect their view of the truth? And why do they choose to trust the characters they do? These questions can be asked of all of Nolan’s films. The Young Man connects with Cobb because he is offered a new life of excitement, a new perspective in his voyeuristic tendencies, and a friend. He is a loner and Cobb lures him in, all according to plan. “You’re developing a taste for it – the violating, the voyeurism… it’s definitely you,” Cobb says, talking to the Young Man. “Bill” is intrigued by the Blonde when they ransack her apartment and uses the excuse of wanting to write about her to form a relationship. “Bill” is lured in again by the Blonde because he is wanting  of a connection, of a friend, of a lover. He knows very little of her, believing that he can read a person by an inspection of their belongings like Cobb, but is willing to risk his life to “help” her. He misreads both Cobb and the Blonde.

When the same questions are asked of the Blonde, you get a similar sense of character progression. She is won over by Cobb, with the belief that she is helping him escape a murder wrap by setting up “Bill”. She knows Cobb as well as “Bill” does. Describing Cobb as “a thief, not a murderer”, she soon realizes her mistake in judgement when he comes to tie up loose ends for the Bald Man.

…show them what they had.

In the final scene of Following the Young Man pleads his case with a Police Detective (One of  a few scenes where the acting rises above the film’s amateur status). He has been set up by Cobb. He didn’t kill the Blonde, and he didn’t kill the old woman either. But who is to say he didn’t. The truth is not important, only what is believed to be true. This idea of truth is not delved into heavily in this film, but Noaln’s next movie, Memento, is an examination of this theme.

An interesting aspect of the film is the fact that the only character whose name is known is Cobb’s (While the protagonist goes by “Bill” to Cobb, and “Daniel Lloyd”, to the Blonde, he is named in the credits as “the Young Man”). Even when the Young Man introduces himself to the Blonde, she does not give her name, not on camera at least. The pub owner, the invisible hand over Following, is known as “the Old Man”, or “the Bald Man”. What does this say about the characters or their relationships? Perhaps it tells us about “Bill”‘s unfortunate trust in Cobb. It wouldn’t make much sense if Cobb would reveal his name to the two characters he is trying to dupe. And “Bill” believes everything that Cobb tells him, so why would he question whether Cobb is trying to conceal himself? Another explanation might be that Nolan is deciding to put us slightly in the mindset of someone on the outside of this love triangle. Someone who is shadowing these characters. Obviously this can only be taken so far, but following someone (or looking through their box of belongings) can only shed so much light on an individual, and through the information we are given, we know very little about the three main characters. On the contrary, the opposite may be a more plausible explanation. Most of our knowledge about the Young Man and the Blonde is gained from their apartments, and Cobb’s  rifling through them. Cobb, the only character we know the real name of, is the character who know least about. Perhaps, Nolan is a believer in Cobb’s way of deducing the truth of an individual, while our interactions with a member of the crowd cannot be trusted.

In the final shot, we see Cobb in the middle of a crowd, starring past the camera. Someone walks past the camera taking up the frame and once they have moved on, Cobb is gone.  He has disappeared and become part of the crowd, like he was at the start of the film.

As a first film, Following is a great precursor for the rest of Christopher Nolan’s work. An enigmatic structure leading to a gripping reveal makes this film an exciting watch, especially with an eye towards Memento and The Prestige (The two Nolan films most similar to  Following). If you pick apart the performances and the depth of the story it’s clear that this is a directorial debut, made on a shoestring budget. The performances are by untrained actors, a detail that is too clear particularly in the few fight scenes. The acting is not too distracting though. When it doesn’t work it is more of a reminder that this is a directorial debut rather than a glaring drawback from the film. The writing is obviously strong, and a rapid seventy minutes Nolan does not give the performances enough time to show their amateur status.

If you are a fan of any Christopher Nolan film not about a billionaire playboy who fights crime, you have no excuse then to check out this little number. While it can be seen as an appetizer for his bigger films, Following may be one of his purest and well realized efforts, void of unnecessary crowd-pleasing action or convoluted plot points.

8 out of 10 stars – ★★★★★★★★

“Everyone has a box” – Cobb

***Director Dissection: Christophher Nolan will continue with his 2000 film Memento*** _______________________________________________________

Other Observations:

♦ “Bill” has a sticker of the Bat Symbol on the front door of his apartment. This connection has been widely reported, but the fact that such a clear reference with Nolan and the Batman franchise that he would take over seven years after the release of Following is mind boggling. More connection may be coming with further Nolan reviews.

♦ Christopher Nolan’s Uncle, John Nolan, plays the role of the police inspector.

♦ A few other things that decorate “Bill”‘s apartment : Mark Rotho posters, classic image of Jack Nicholson in The Shining (Another film with nonlinear format), Marilyn Monroe, and Andy Warhol.

♦ Following was made over the span of a year, with a budget of $6,000. Nolan paid for the film as they went along and was part of nearly ever aspect of production. (writing, directing,  cinematography, editing, and producing)

One comment

  1. Great post! It’s nice to see Nolan’s debut effort getting some love.

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