Christopher Nolan’s ascension into the current pantheon of Hollywood directors felt somehow inevitable. There’s a cool confidence to everything he’s written and directed, and it’s there on the screen, somehow underscored by the paranoia and obsession of his broken male heroes. They may be struggling against their insecurities, their guilt, or the women who are always betraying them, but at least they hire good tailors.
Twenty years after the U.S. release of Nolan’s first feature, Following, the indie film is a fascinatingly complete statement on the entire stark, suspenseful, propulsive aesthetic the director still delivers. And it bears all the hallmarks of the time-jumping, self-assured, sleight-of-hand storytelling he brings to every feature.
A nervous, obsessed writer sits in a police interrogation room, relating the story of how he began an odd ritual: Following people around for the hell of it. Credited only as The Young Man (Jeremy Theobald), our protagonist claims he wanted to drink in details for his writing. It seems like he really just wants to know these things for himself.
One day, he’s made by one of his marks, the cat burglar Cobb (Alex Haw). Cobb decides he’ll bring The Young Man along on his blithe home invasions, teaching him the tricks of the trade: Don’t dress like a burglar, go with latex gloves for a good grip that avoids leaving prints, only steal things that are easy to fence and hard to trace, and always case the joint. Cobb’s propensity for sowing chaos in his victims’ lives—a misplaced earring here, a pair of underwear from a totally unrelated flat there—is far more sinister than the rest of his petty crime.
At the same time, The Young Man is becoming involved with another of his longtime marks, a woman credited only as The Blonde (Lucy Russell). In the course of Nolan’s out-of-order, suspense-building plot, we discover The Young Man started following her after Cobb brought him along to burgle her apartment. She’s a damsel in distress, at the mercy of a gangster with compromising photos of her locked in a safe. After his falling out with Cobb, The Young Man decides he’ll help her, transforming himself into the same kind of slickly dressed master thief to pull off a violent heist.
Like all Nolan stories, though, there’s a twist. The Young Man is himself the mark, followed and groomed by Cobb and The Blonde to be convinced to raid the gangster’s vault. He confronts The Blonde about it and goes to the police, but it’s too late. The Young Man finds out at the last that he’s been framed, and Cobb has killed the only woman who could corroborate his story before slipping anonymously into the throng of pedestrians.
The hallmarks of Nolan’s directorial style—narration over montage action that creates a sense of being unmoored, the framing device that brings viewers back to a baseline before the start of each act, the changes in characters’ appearances to indicate both how they’ve changed and easily mark to viewers where we are in the story even as time jumps all over the place—are all on display in a movie without the big-name actors, expensive cameras or mind-bending set pieces. In so many of the details, large and small, you’ll see echoes of later films where Nolan more fully develops similar ideas.
Most people first became aware of the director when Memento hit theaters in 2000, in which the director’s insistence on telling most of his stories out of order became not just a device but the literal statement of the movie. The story of Leonard (Guy Pearce) and his quest for revenge on his wife’s killer is told in reverse because he’s lost the ability to form short-term memory, but the thematic statement of the film—the belief that reality has to exist outside perception for it to mean anything at all—is revealed to us in a straight, forward line.
The idea that Leonard’s love is a mechanism to willfully blind himself to a truth that persists beyond his narrow view echoes the reveals in a lot of Nolan’s other scripts. The Prestige (technically an adaptation of a novel, but one with which Nolan took broad structural liberties) conflates showmanship with lying (and its costs) in the same way Inception conflates our personal mythmaking with dreams (and our openness, even total willingness, to manipulators).
Those are the really close readings, of course. The beauty of his films, including the Batman ones, is that they feel easy and exciting to watch before you can spend hours wondering about them.
Nolan’s style isn’t without complaints, both technical and thematic. Nearly every female character at some point betrays the lead, something he even managed to pull twice in The Dark Knight Rises, and Nolan’s peculiar, introspective take on character seems to have the effect of all of his protagonists being male. Those two criticisms, largely unexamined in the acclaim surrounding his box office billions, are both right there in Following.
He can approve final cuts that—especially in flicks that end with showy action scenes like the Dark Knight films or Inception—leave in awkward exposition. Infuriatingly, his dialogue often gets lost amidst Hans Zimmer’s swelling scores or big explosions, when it doesn’t simply move so fast that it unfairly treats Ken Watanabe or Tom Hardy. This last is all the more baffling because Nolan seems genuinely to care about how his movies are exhibited, including being vocal about the preservation of film stock over digital projection. They’re fundamental weaknesses from a director renowned for fastidiousness, right down to his propensity for building massive, detailed sets with practical effects that can break your brain.
Still, these wrinkles only stand out because he’s consistently turned out sharp and thought-provoking movies for 20 years. Like a body-swapping magician or a gentleman dream thief, he’s become the sort of charlatan who people absolutely trust that they can absolutely not trust.
Entirely unrelated to the plot or the characters or the scenario in Following is one last little detail, planted in plain sight and whose meaning only reveals itself much, much later: On the door of The Young Man’s apartment is a sticker of the Batman symbol, years before Nolan would create one of the all-time iconic portrayals of the character—years before he could possibly have known what it would mean to him. For a manic moment, I wondered if it was all planned all along.
But that couldn’t possibly be true. Could it?
Kenneth Lowe cares about the man in the box. You can follow him on Twitter and read more of his writing at his blog.