Having discussed Drag Me to Hell, the kind of film that a blockbuster director makes after they’ve conquered the world, today’s film is Christopher Nolan’s Following, a movie made before the marquee beckoned. His debut feature, made in 1998 (after the rather inconsequential short film Doodlebug), is not far from Man Bites Dog for its unqualified nastiness or Radio On in its purity and style. It’s an exciting bag of ideas that are well honed and finely implemented, the kind of debut that outstrips its calling card purpose and really broadcast the creator’s talent.
‘The following is my story’: so begins the narrative. The pun is clear – it’s a story about the act of following. It’s not far from a JG Ballard short story in its nastiness, and the persistent fall into further layers of nastiness. The main character begins to tell of his compulsion to randomly stalk, framed as an interview (for what reason we don’t know – it’s an exciting and portentuous ambiguity. Is this a psychiatrist, a parent or a police officer?). He is caught in the act by Cobb who confronts him and initiates him into his personal vice – burglary. Before long, he’s also entangled with a blonde whose story doesn’t quite add up (the black and white being not the only nod to noir) and a gangster with vicious designs. Before long he’s ensnared and the only way is down.
Some could see this as a dry run for Memento only a couple of years later. They’re both told in non-linear sequence (though far less schematically here than in his later film), with a noirish slipperiness with characters’ true natures. But Following is a very different film – where Guy Pearce’s character is a man who is driven by a mission, Jeremy Theobold’s is characterised by his aimlessness (his following is a unexplained urge and he claims to choose his subjects randomly). Pierce’s character is a victim of the way in which he must experience time, whereas The Young Man’s fractured time is perhaps simply a function of his inability to tell his story straight (or the events that befall him are too shocking to be contemplated in sequence, without retracing traumatic moments).
What’s most striking is Nolan’s ability to draw strength from the limitations imposed upon him. Supposedly filmed on a series of Saturdays over a year, there’s a rawness to the scenes, both in the way they’re shot and acted, that makes the tale of intrusion into the other people’s personal lives all the more discomforting. These are not sets made to look lived in by a prop’s master. These were the actual homes of Nolan’s contemporaries and family (including an unknowing wink to his future career, with Batman sticker upon his own residence). None of the cast went on to greater things, but all are very naturalistic and likeable for it (perhaps worryingly so, given their proclivities). It’s also refreshing to see English actors portraying a life of England that’s not tied up with an inherentantly stereotypical view of British life created by the rest of the world (the kind of world that only Richard Curtis’ characters inhabit).
Most crucially, Nolan focuses on the dialogue. And it is always dialogue between two characters. There are no scenes that involve more than two characters talking (again, perhaps a function of his limited resources; the actors were forced to drill their scenes repeatedly due to the prohibitive cost of the 16mm stock. More actors=more chances of expensive failure).
Perhaps what’s most disquieting is its transformation of the life of the amateur writer. Like the director himself, he notes human behaviour from a distance. Apparently the germ of the idea formed from a break-in he experienced, wondering what the criminals thought of his life. There’s a tacit point being made throughout of the intrusion that writers take from those around them – theft of character, violation of private space, using someone’s property against their will. The burglar and the writer are one and the same.
Like Donnie Darko or Primer, it’s a strong debut feature with an excellently worked out central premise that is then perfected by its limitations.