(In chronological order, the film is shown as a fragmented narrative out of sequence)
Our synopses give away the plot in full, including surprise twists.
London, 1998. An unemployed would-be writer Bill begins following random people. A suave character named Cobb confronts him in a cafe. Cobb has noticed that Bill has been following him. Cobb tells Bill that he is a burglar. He convinces Bill to follow him some more so as to demonstrate his methods of breaking and entering. Cobb tells Bill that he does it for the adrenalin rush and finding people’s secrets.
After breaking into the house of a blonde woman with Cobb, Bill smartens up and begins following her. Later, after chatting her up in a bar, a relationship ensues. She convinces Bill to steal some photographs from the office of her ex-boyfriend claiming he has been using them to blackmail her. Upon doing this Bill uses a hammer to injure a heavy that catches him in the act.
Returning to the blonde with the innocuous photographs and a large amount of money she reveals that she and Cobb had been framing him all along for a murder that Cobb was suspected of committing. Bill reports everything to the police. However, in the meantime Cobb has murdered the blonde with Bill’s hammer, framing Bill and stopping the blonde from going to the police herself to inform them of a murder committed by her ex-boyfriend, who is revealed to be Cobb’s boss. The police have no knowledge of the previous murder case or a suspect named Cobb. Cobb vanishes into the crowded streets.
With Christopher Nolan’s latest “smart”, “quirky” and “edgy” thriller Inception scorching an impenetratable blaze of a trail on 3D screens worldwide, and the third part of his impressively crescendoing Batman trilogy perched on the horizon, taking a look back at his first feature length directorial debut you may notice that he might have lost a smidgen of his original charm along the way. Following opened in late ‘98 to less than a whimper in the UK, but elsewhere received the kind of plaudits and accolades that were enough to lure Nolan – one of Britain’s brightest young talents in years – away from our shores to Hollywood. This film sadly remains the only one from this British director to be set in a British location.
What did the British film industry and critics miss? All the clues to Nolan’s future style are there in a purer form. The fragmented narrative gives the director chance to flex his admirable storytelling pecks seen later time and time again. Obviously a studious filmmaker harking back to likes of Bogdanovich, Scorsese and the directors of the ‘70’s “New Hollywood” film school generation Nolan excels in presenting the conventions of a classic film noir using only found lighting to illuminating effect, even without any formal education. The subtle changes in light and dark from scene to scene convey all the atmosphere necessary to accommodate the, at times, lacklustre acting. The levels of acting (and overacting) have varied through the director’s films thus far: from this collection of rookies putting together scenes just slightly above that of an amateur dramatic theatre group to a supreme show in scenery chewing from Al Pacino, or from master classes of playing yourself from Michael Caine to the deadpan Guy Pearce, well suited to Memento.
It is also a deadpan naturalistic style that is present here, and with Memento, it matters little, as the characters seem to be so well-developed, and ready for the audience to invest themselves into their story. Like Cobb, the viewer gains such a sense of Bill from a simple look at his flat that they are ready to follow him and those he follows in turn. Intertextuality abounds, from Jack Nicholson and Marilyn Monroe postcards stuck on the wall to the stolen Trainspotting soundtrack CD and the Batman sign on his door, a coincidental sign of things to come. With the first of his Batman films, this ideal of character development is still just about there, but, by the time we reach his second instalment all subtlety of this kind is dropped for explosions, the changing of actresses to comply with studio schedules and incongruent change in the timbre of the protagonist’s voice. And with Inception various plot devices and character’s arcs are thrown at us with the subtlety of a sledgehammer amongst more explosions and mind (and screen) bending imagery, but surely Nolan couldn’t have forgotten the depth he invested in his earlier characters as he gives Leonardo Di Caprio’s character the name Cobb, the very same name as the suave villain of his debut picture.
Probably the clearest example of Nolan’s switch from bright young thing to the producer of Hollywood blockbusters is the fight scene in the centre of Following. It is a truly British affair. The Hugh Grant-style flailing nature of it is that which many English people are ashamed to admit is true to form. It blends into the London skyline very well, even having a choreographer, it is a far cry from the supremely co-ordinated floating Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Inception. Yet, what this film sacrifices in polish and continuity it gains in charm, originality and, for the time, a fresh look at a genre that Hollywood was content in churning out glossy pastiches like L.A. Confidential (featuring a deadpan Guy Pearce no less). Themes present in Following were also becoming common in other US films of the late nineties, like Sam Mendes in American Beauty questioning life and material values and David Fincher, who – like Nolan – toys with existential ideas along the way in Fight Club. It’s no surprise then that Hollywood snapped up the young writer/director, shame then that Nolan was in England long enough to give us this picture alone. “You take it away, and you show them what they had.”