DIRECTED BY: Christopher Nolan
FEATURING: Jeremy Theobald, Alex Haw, Lucy Russell, John Nolan
PLOT: Attempting to jump start his imagination by following random people through the city, an unemployed writer finds himself enlisted in assisting petty thefts, but soon becomes embroiled in a more dangerous series of crimes.
COMMENTS: For those caught up in Barbenheimer fever, the pairing of a candy-colored meta-explosion of product placement with a sober biography of the man who shepherded the atomic bomb into existence is enjoyable precisely because it seems a strange alignment, a karmic fusion of two wildly opposed mindsets in one pop culture moment. But it’s not so crazy when you remember one thing about Oppenheimer’s auteur: Christopher Nolan is a populist. His subjects and their treatments may be high and mighty, but he really (I mean really) just wants to get butts in seats and eyes on the screen. Yes, his subjects can turn on dense physics or mind-bending twists, but it’s fair to assume that if he could have filmed Barbie with fractured narratives and looming existential dread while casting Cillian Murphy or Tom Hardy in the lead, he’d have taken the gig.
Proof of that conjecture lies in Nolan’s debut feature, which came out two years before his breakthrough with Memento. The story itself is a simple but impressively taut thriller about a foolish young man who makes bad choices, although none of us know just how bad until the very end. With grainy black-and-white photography and a core triangle of characters who have varying degrees of commitment to moral justice, it’s got all the trappings of a classic noir. The film is unusually economical for Nolan, clocking in at an hour and ten minutes, but still has room for some crackling dialogue, especially as small-time burglar-cum-criminal mastermind Cobb describes the psychology of his victims. (The small cast is solid if not flashy, with special praise for the haughty imperiousness Alex Haw embodies invests in Cobb.) There are a couple of familiar Nolan shortcomings. Only one character in the film gets a proper name, and it’s telling that even in a film essentially populated by only three characters, the female lead (Russell’s icy Blonde) is easily the least fleshed out. But all-in-all, Following succeeds because it knows what it is and sticks to that. It just works.
Of course, even this early in his career, Nolan’s gotta Nolan. We get the tale in a jumbled order that keeps us from seeing the ultimate fate of The Young Man (he calls himself Bill, but the generic credit suggests this may be a falsehood) until it’s too late. It’s not just showing off; Nolan knows that a straight linear cut of the film would make The Young Man’s arc obvious, even inevitable. By moving back and forth in the timeline, the audience can better occupy the mindset of the protagonist, making it more personal when the end comes. And Nolan is unusually interested in helping the audience navigate the plot. A simple visual code–Theobald appears in the three phases of his timeline as either scruffy, spiffy, or scarred and beaten–ensures that even as the story jumps backward and forward in time, we can keep our bearings.
Aside from its twisty structure, Following isn’t especially weird. But there is a strange side effect of watching it retrospectively; when compared with all that has come after, Nolan’s efforts in this first film seem small. Considering the ambitious size of his Batman trilogy or his determination to destroy linear time as we know it–moving backwards through it in Memento, looping it in Interstellar, mirroring it in Tenet, nesting it in Inception, or unspooling it at varying speeds in Dunkirk–Nolan’s gambit here feels almost quaint. That’s the delicious irony in the relative obscurity of Christopher Nolan’s debut feature. In assessing the filmmaker’s career as a whole, it is inevitably a film that you have to go back into the catalog to find, that you can only experience while already in possession of the knowledge of the career to come. In other words, it is impossible to consider his output in a linear fashion. The Christopher Nolan timeline is unavoidably fractured. Which one imagines is exactly how he likes it.
Incidentally, if you want to keep the Barbenheimer vibe going, might I suggest that Following could be part of another great Barbie-Nolan double feature? After all, girl’s got some gritty indie film credits in her past, too.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Already in ‘Following’ you see Nolan’s affinity for convoluted chronological structure and the final twist, in which all the jigsaw plot pieces snap into place and you finally see the whole picture (along with the main character). You may wonder just how necessary/integral they are, but they help make the film fun to watch, even if they don’t necessarily add up to a whole lot.”–Jim Emerson, RogerEbert.com
(This movie was nominated for review by Mick Bornson, who called it “pretty weird.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)