Saturday, November 21, 2009

London Lurking: Following

As some of you may know, The Dark Knight was by far my favorite film of 2008. Mr. Hollis-Lima liked it, too. Earlier this year, I blogged about the trailer for Nolan's next film, a science fiction thriller called Inception. Nolan's second Batman seems to have overshadowed all his previous work, even the much-praised Memento. I thought it would be entertaining to do a Me and Matt on Media retrospective of all Nolan's earlier films, starting with his debut movie, Following.

Memento was praised for its shuffling of scenes and timelines; Following does much the same thing, though it lacks the narrative justification (i.e. Guy Pearce's brain injury) for the confusion. There's a frame story – the protagonist in a police station, telling a detective his story – but I don't think the audience is supposed to assume that he's telling it in this disjointed fashion, especially since there are a few important scenes that our protagonist doesn't even witness. The plot would be extremely interesting even without the rearranged scenes, but the conceit generally works. Though a tad pretentious and slightly nonsensical, putting the plot's puzzle together is extremely satisfying.

Following's plot is highly and self-consciously noirish; it's a psychological thriller shot in black-and-white. With one exception, the thief Cobb (Alex Haw), the cast list doesn't even give character names. Instead, Jeremy Theobald is "The Young Man," Lucy Russell is "The Blonde," and John Nolan (the director's uncle) is "The Policeman." The archetypical character descriptions suggest a pastiche or homage, but Following hardly lacks for originality. The protagonist, though a fool, is far less an everyman than the typical noir sap. "The Young Man" is a struggling and unemployed would-be writer who has found a new way of gathering material: tailing random people through London's streets.

It's damn creepy, but he doesn't harm anyone until the day he tails a well-dressed gentleman carrying a mysterious duffel bag. As it turns out, this man is a burglar named Cobb; he's in the market for a partner-in-crime. Following is all well and good, he explains, but it's nothing to match the transgressive thrill of breaking and entering. The young man isn't terribly intelligent, so he follows Cobb into his life of crime. Soon he's dating one of his past break-in victims, a beautiful blonde with a mysterious connection to a very bad man... Given that the film opens in a police station, one can't expect things to end well for our poor following fool.

It's rather sad to look at Following's cast on IMDB. All the film's actors are very good, but very few of them have appeared in much else, though Nolan gave several of them cameos in Batman Begins. Lucy Russell's role is by far the most traditional – her character is a classic femme fatale. Alex Haw as Cobb is simultaneously charming, dapper, and threatening; he's by far the most energetic actor on the screen. Jeremy Theobald plays the lead, a sucker, a follower (in every sense of the word), and a pervert with an odd mix of meekness occasional confidence. He's likable, but his downfall is darkly comic, not tragic.

I can't finish my review of Following without mentioning its budget. Nolan had very little money to make this film, but he did a phenomenal job working around his lack of funding. Most of the film takes place inside the same few rooms, but this makes sense for the story. According to IMDB, the director and stars were only able to shoot on Saturdays, as they all worked the rest of the week. Films shot under such conditions should not be as good as this one.

Much of Following seems to prefigure Nolan's later work – the magnetic villains reappear in The Dark Knight, while the plot convolutions show up in Memento and (if the film is at all like the book) The Prestige. There's also one wonderful inadvertent "premonition" of later Nolan in the film, but I'll leave that for viewers to discover on their own. For all its affinities with the director's later work, Following seems to stand apart from the rest of the Nolan canon. For one thing, it's extremely quiet and low-key, hardly words one would associate with today's Nolan. In addition, Following is a very short movie, only seventy minutes long. Nolan's last movie was almost twice as long as his first.

Following is available on DVD and on Netflix Watch Instantly. It's worth your time.

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