This is a spoiler lite review of Christopher Nolan’s neo-noir classic titled ‘Following’, the first feature film from the director of The Dark Knight Trilogy.
“You ever um … been to a football match just to let your eyes rise, go over, drift across a crowd of people, and then slowly start to fix on one person and all of a sudden that person isn’t part of the crowd anymore? They’ve become an individual, just like that.” says a young man in the opening monologue of Christopher Nolan’s ‘Following’.
Back in 1998, before the success of ‘Memento’, ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘Inception’, Nolan wrote and directed a no-budget movie he filmed with his friends over several weekends. The inspiration for ‘Following” comes from Nolan’s own experience of feeling isolated despite being surrounded by millions of people in his home city of London.
In our modern age, many of us are conditioned to ignore people as if they don’t exist, whether standing beside someone in a lift or even to next-door neighbors, preferring to look down and interact with our smartphones. It’s easy to forget that every face in the crowd has their own personal identity, dilemmas and feelings. In classic Nolan style, he turns his contemplative musings into an engrossing, psychological crime story for the masses.
‘Following’ centers on a lonely, aspiring writer (Jeremy Theobald) who secretly shadows or follows random strangers around the city under the pretense he’s doing research for his story. But when he is confronted on his voyeuristic activities, one of these strangers, a man by the name of Cobb (Alex Haw), leads him down a path of crime.
A part of the criminal element of ‘Following’ comes from Nolan’s experience as a victim of a home burglary. It’s the idea that by breaking into people’s lives it forces them to see what’s been taken for granted. Our homes are filled with material objects and keepsakes which reveal something very personal about ourselves. When something is lost or stolen, we are compelled to examine if the object still holds value and meaning in our lives.
The story unfolds in a non-linear way, comprising of two timelines criss-crossing back and forth. By revealing the beginning, middle and end of the movie within the first ten minutes it builds the breadth of the story and shapes the mystery of how things come to be. Essentially, each scene is a snapshot of events within a larger puzzle but what helps to put the pieces together is the contrasting appearance of the main character in each time period and using locations that are readily identifiable.
The look of the film is a grainy, black and white, hand-held documentary style. This imparts a timeless and lived-in quality to the movie. Nolan’s use of primarily natural and practical lighting, aesthetically illuminates characters in contrasting shades of light and shadow. The filming technique contributes to the tone and feel of the movie but also helps to conceal it was made on a non-existent budget.
Every aspect of the movie, from the non-linear script, editing choices to black and white 16 mm film is because the movie had no-budget. Most of the interior locations belonged to either a cast member, friend or family, including shooting at Nolan parents’ flat. For exteriors, Nolan shot on the streets with passersby in the background not knowing they were on film. Because expensive lighting equipment could not be purchased, characters are usually seen talking in front of windows.
The cast prepared for their parts months in advance, capturing their performance in one or two takes which is considerably helpful due the limited film stock available. Each of the three main cast members, including Lucy Russell who plays an enigmatic blonde woman, are excellent in their respective roles.
With a run time of only 70 minutes, the film can easily be re-watched immediately after the first viewing. Many scenes and nuances to the actor’s performance take on a whole new meaning the second time through.
‘Following’ DVD/Blu-Ray, which is part of the Criterion Collection, has insightful commentary and a interview with Nolan in which a lot of interesting tidbits have been summarized in this review. The disc also contains a linear cut of the movie in addition to an experimental short piece titled ‘Doodlebug’ which Nolan filmed as an university student.
This movie is a thoughtful look at how invasion of privacy intersects with the loss of personal identity in our current culture. For movie buffs curious about what the director of The Dark Knight Trilogy can accomplish without a big-budget, ‘Following’ is worth checking out.