It’s probably impossible to watch Following nowadays and avoid trying to extract everything that is Nolan-esque about it. This is simply because in the 14 years that have gone by since its release, Christopher Nolan became one of the most popular writer/directors in the world. Therefore to approach the film now — without the blessing of an untainted vision — is to try and decipher how the creator of this low budget film noir, ended up directing three of the biggest box office hits of all time. The question for some then will be: is the Nolan who made Following the same man who went on to create Inception?
It could be easy to reduce Nolan’s first feature film to a series of “Oh, so this is where this came from”-s, because on more than one occasion Following offers clues that make Nolan’s subsequent movies seem directly traceable to it; yet to do so would rob us of the pleasure of watching a young filmmaker have fun with the art form and make the most out of the limited resources he had.
Following was so low budget that it took Nolan a whole year to shoot, given that all the cast and crew members had daytime jobs and could only commit to shooting during the weekends, plus it was necessary to save film stock since the film was almost entirely financed by Nolan. Even if these anecdotes aren’t obvious watching the film — for what is Nolan if not a perfectionist — they make for an interesting contrast, considering how little his technical flourishes have changed even if he now commands budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars. The humble $6,000 budget of Following is nothing compared to the cost of Nolan’s Dark Knight movies, but the difference is that the superhero movies don’t feel half as alive as the former.
The film sets up a deceivingly simple premise as we meet a young man (Jeremy Theobald) who is telling his story to a detective. He starts by explaining how he started following strangers in London, trying to find inspiration for his new novel. After developing the habit of following completely random people, he sets his eye on a well dressed man (Alex Haw) who notices he’s being followed. After asking him whether he’s trying to hit on him, the well dressed man introduces himself as Cobb (the name of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Inception), and reveals a profession that seems almost too thrilling to be real. He happens to be a serial burglar who breaks into people’s apartments, not so much to steal, as to provoke an existentialist shakeup in his victims’ lives. He thinks that by taking their things from them all he’s doing is show them what they had.
The young man soon finds himself following in Cobb’s footsteps. He changes his look and then becomes obsessed with one of the women (Lucy Russell) he burglarized, but as we all know, curvy blondes in black and white films have never been a good omen. The unnamed leading man is then thrown into a vicious plot involving blackmail, intrigue and murder.
Nolan turns the movie into a jigsaw puzzle — a technique he would perfect in the brilliant Memento — by slicing it and feeding viewers just about enough information for us to think they can put the pieces together, but like he did in The Prestige he pulls the rug right from under us to remind us he’s always been a faithful believer that a movie director is the ultimate creator. Some of his newer films have turned this into an arrogant trait, but looking at the stylish Following the result is quite pleasurable because we feel like we’re part of the secret.
Following is presented by The Criterion Collection in a superb new transfer supervised and authorized by the director himself. The texture provided by the 16mm stock gives the film a rich, B-movie quality which sometimes fools us into thinking it’s a noir-ish homage made during the ’70s. Also included is a fascinating audio commentary with Nolan who isn’t as modest about his work as he seems.
Further, there’s also a fun interview where the director details the behind the scenes misadventures he endured during production. Criterion also provides an unnecessary chronological cut of the film which merely undermines the audience’s intelligence, as well as a script-to-scene comparison that proves how Nolan sticks to his word when shooting. Trailers and a booklet with an essay by film critic Scott Foundas are also included, but the most charming bonus feature is Doodlebug, a playful short film made by Nolan a year before he made Following, which show his fascination with the endless world of meta.