Following – A Review
“Are you watching closely?” – Alfred Borden, The Prestige (2006)
They pass us everyday, like ghosts. We see them, we are aware that they are there, but we know nothing about them; they are covers to books without anything written on the pages. Who am I referring to? People. These are normal, regular, everyday people. We pass dozens, maybe even hundreds of them everyday. We are around people constantly, but how many of them do we actually know? What are other people like, what are their stories, what are their secrets? If we had the chance to learn about the life of a complete stranger, would we like what we see? This is the question that obsesses the main character of Following (1998), director Christopher Nolan’s first full-length feature.
In a little more then ten years, Christopher Nolan has gone from being a promising British director to sitting on top of the filmmaking world. His films display an originality that is often passed up in Hollywood, yet at the same time showcases a firm understanding of character and narrative structure, he has yet to make a bad movie. One thing is for sure; the characters of Nolan’s films are driven by obsession. Whether it be the obsession over the death of a loved one, as in Memento (2000) and the Batman films, the desire to out-do a rival, like the battling magicians of The Prestige (2006), or the lengths one would go to hide or discover the truth (Insomnia, 2002), Nolan’s characters feed off of their strengths and weaknesses. The birth of this style can clearly be seen in Following.
The young man of the story (Jeremy Theobald), who calls himself “Bill,” is a down-and-out writer. His hair is long and grungy, his clothes dirty and tattered, and his apartment is a complete mess. Bill has a problem: he has a fixation to follow people. He picks a person, follows them down the street, and sees where they go and what they do. Early in the film, he explains in voiceover that it is not a sexual interest, he follows people because he is interested in other people’s stories, which gives him a basis for the characters in his writings to build off of.
One day, Bill decides to break one of his main rules: to never follow a person more than once. The person he chooses unfortunately (or fortunately) turns out to be Cobb (Alex Haw), a professional burglar. Cobb spots Bill easily, but instead of pushing him away, Cobb invites Bill to follow him during his jobs. This poses as an interesting opportunity for Bill, to not just follow a person, but now to break in to their homes, rummage through their stuff, learn even more about their stories. As Bill learns more about Cobb and his ability to deduce people’s lives from their own personal possessions, Bill begins to take on Cobb’s state of mind, even to the extent of cutting his hair and wearing clothes that are similar to the professional thief. What follows is an ingenious web of intrigue and betrayals involving Bill, Cobb, a mysterious Blonde that Bill falls for, and a bald criminal that may or may not already be romantically involved with her.
With his very first feature, one can already see that Nolan is a director of great skill and confidence in his work. This can be seen with the very first shots of the movie. We see gloved hands, searching through someone’s personal possessions; and we as the audience wonder what these things are, how they relate to one another, and how they are of relevance, the same way Bill wonders about these things himself. The music of the film is rhythmic and ominous, creating a sense of tension and anticipation, very similar to the music Nolan would use again in The Dark Knight. The structure of the film is disjointed: at one point we are at the beginning of the story, the next at the end, and then the middle, and so on, the same kind of structure he would use brilliantly in Memento. Many of Nolan’s shots are in close up, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere. All these factors are major contributors to the theme of observation.
Nolan establishes this theme and how things are not always what they seem very well throughout the movie. The biggest example of this is obviously Bill himself, who follows and observes other people, and yet, Cobb in turn knows and observes Bill. Cobb is able to deduce people’s lives through their personal belongings; Bill follows and learns about the Blonde, and in doing so falls in love with her. Cobb, although a thief, sometimes does not steal things at all, but misplaces items, and explains that by doing so, he forces his victims to take a closer look at what they have and what these items mean to them. Even ourselves, as the viewer of this very film, put ourselves in to the same position that Bill does, and we find ourselves following his moves trying to fit the pieces together. All the while, everyone may or may not actually be as they appear, someone may be telling a lie, and it is not until the end where the truth of the story is revealed.
As strong as Nolan is in laying out his theme throughout the movie, it does however have its flaws. The broken structure of the film is too disjointed, making it difficult to follow the characters and story through their respective arcs. The Blonde woman, played by Lucy Russell, was probably the weakest of the main characters; her acting felt flat and a little forced, I didn’t believe that her character would be someone that Bill would be attracted to. Compare this to Alex Haw, the actor playing Cobb, who displays his character with a cool confidence, making it believable that Bill would tag along and look up to him. The story itself seemed a little too far-fetched. As it unraveled and the twists and turns began to take shape, the secret agendas and surprise connections were too well placed. Even at the end, where everything came out in the open, felt like a laundry list of loose ends that were neatly taken care of; the pieces fit together much too perfectly.
Despite its setbacks, Following is a strong debut by a filmmaker who would go on to be one of the best in his field. Throughout all of his films, Christopher Nolan has the uncanny ability to take characters one would think they already know, and flip them upside down; a viewer must always expect the unexpected with him. His upcoming film Inception, deals with that very idea, with Leonardo DiCaprio as a man able to look in to and live in the dreams of others, this is one of the major films I’m most looking forward to in 2010. If it’s anything like Following, or any of his other films, it’ll be nothing like I imagine it would be, and I mean that in a good way.