Christopher Nolan pretty much has every director’s dream trajectory: He started out with two very small independent films, got noticed, slowly got bigger and bigger actors and projects, built his reputation, and before you know it BAM, he’s become one of the most lucrative auteurs in the business. It’s fascinating to see such an evolution from his small thrillers to his epic blockbusters, and it’s especially interesting to see all the themes that connect all of his work.
So interesting, in fact, that I’ve decided look back at that trajectory from the very beginning and go film by film viewing the evolution of Christopher Nolan. Starting today is my Christopher Nolan retrospective, where we analyze that evolution and see how his stamp starts to form over the course of his career, starting from his first indie films all the way up to my review of The Dark Knight Rises when it releases.
But do take note that I won’t be doing the Batman films until after The Dark Knight Rises, mainly because it will be more interesting to compare those two films with the conclusion that they ultimately build up to. However, expect me to talk about the rest of your favorites, including Memento, The Prestige, Inception, etc.
“It was supposed to just be completely random. And when it stopped being random, that’s when it started to go wrong.”
Following is on the exact opposite end of the spectrum of Christopher Nolan’s blockbusters. It’s shot in black and white, has a relatively small scope, relies mostly on dialogue, and is so confusingly non-linear that it makes Memento looks as straightforward as…well, The Dark Knight I guess.
It’s also one of his most different films when compared to the rest of his filmography. While it’s told in a very original non-linear structure, it’s mostly a standard noir story about a guy who’s in over his head as he’s embroiled in various levels of crime. Because of this, Nolan doesn’t just rely on the structure to keep things fresh, he also relies on mood. Nolan isn’t the most atmosphere-driven director, but there’s a palpable sense of menace that hangs over Following like a deep fog.
Set in the UK, Following follows a man named Bill (Played by Jeremy Theobald) who becomes obsessed with following random people. Not quite stalking them, but he’s fascinated by where they go, who they meet, what interests them, who they are, what makes them as individuals. At first, it’s done to gather material for potential novels in his career as a failing writer, but soon he starts doing it as a hobby. It is at this point, that he creates rules, one of which he breaks by the time the film is just getting started: Never follow the same person twice.
Soon, he becomes acquainted with a man named Cobb (Played by Alex Haw, and HEY doesn’t that name sound familiar?) who has his own little obsession: Breaking into other people’s homes, taking and misplacing random stuff, and as a result disrupting their private lives just for a moment. Like Bill with his following people, Cobb has his own rules about breaking in, and just like before, Bill breaks one of the most important rules.
The movie is told in a non-linear structure that I like to call a “Triangle Narrative”. There are three separate “timelines” that take place throughout the film, each one goes in order but the way they intercut between each other causes confusion. We have the Part 1, which shows Bill as he’s first being suckered into Cobb’s schemes; then Part 2, in which Bill has pretty much become Cobb and is starting to get involved with a mysterious blonde woman; then part 3, in which a beaten up Bill is starting to do some shady things. Each one goes in order, but they cut between each other. For example, we’ll see part of Part 1 before it cuts to a scene from Part 2, without even having completely finished Part 1, and so on.
As confusing as the structure is, we’re still able to follow it. Christopher Nolan is an incredibly smart director in the way he entrusts the audience to follow along. He never treats the viewer like an idiot who won’t get it, even in a movie like Inception that is filled with expository dialogue. Nolan uses some very smart visual cues to distinguish which “timeline” we’re viewing. Much like how Memento used colors to distinguish between the two converging timelines, Following uses something a little more subtle in the way of the protagonist’s appearance. In Part 1, Bill has long hair and a beard. In Part 2, we see him more clean-cut and shaven. And in Part 3, his face is covered in bruises and scratches.
The best part about Nolan’s use of non-linear narratives is that he always has a good reason for doing it. Most people just like to do it to look cool and intelligent without having to do anything genuinely clever, but Nolan always find a way to make it fit the story. In this case, he uses it in a way that makes us genuinely interested in Bill’s various transformations. We want to see how he gets from point A to point B to point C and Nolan constantly delivers by slowly feeding in information bit by bit with each passing of each timeline. This allows the audience to be an active participant in the story, as you are piecing the mystery together just as much as Bill is.
Nolan is smart about involving the audience and having us do as much of the heavy work as his characters. He doesn’t want to merely just pull the rug from under us. He’s not trying to be confusing just for the sake of being confusing. He wants the audience to feel something, to think about something, to learn something about the characters and the situations they’re in. He genuinely wants you to follow along, and his movies are like tests to see if you’re worthy enough to reach the bottom of the rabbit hole.
So Following shows signs of Christopher Nolan’s knack for audience involvement, but what about the themes? One of the most interesting things about auteurs is that there are usually very specific themes that they like to callback to throughout their work. Malick is obsessed with nature; Cronenberg is obsessed with the relationship between the psyche and the body; Aronofsky is obsessed with…well, the nature of obsession itself; what about Nolan?
To me, I’ve always noticed two major themes that are constantly in his filmography. The first theme that Nolan constantly portrays is how subjectivity can shape our realities. Could our subconscious shape what’s real to us? Is there even such thing as an objective reality? Can we trust our minds? Could our illusion of what we think is real shape who we are, or even change us? This theme isn’t really in Followingmuch but there are traces of it there in the different transformations of Bill. When Bill starts seeing things in a new light, through following people and following Cobb, he starts to change as an individual until it shapes who he is. But we’ll get into more detail on this theme in the upcoming discussions for Memento and Inception.
The second theme that seems to permeate Nolan’s filmography is the relationship between order and chaos. This is what Following is mainly about. The whole film’s theme can be summed up in this quote that’s in the prologue of the film: “It was supposed to just be completely random. And when it stopped being random, that’s when it started to go wrong.” Do we live in a society of order? Do we live in a constant sea of chaos? And depending on which interpretation floats your boat, what would happen if a dash of the opposite one was injected into your life. In Following, there is a specific order to the way Bill approaches his followings. He sets up rules, doesn’t attempt to make it creepy (even though it totally, totally is), and tries to do everything in a set pattern. When he steps off that pattern, and starts to inject a little chaos in the proceedings, things go very wrong for him.
Soon, his entire life is chaos. People aren’t who they say they are, he’s double-crossed, and then triple-crossed, and finally he realizes that all of that chaos that followed him, was all part of the plan of another (a.k.a. Order). What was chaos for him, was order for the man that deceived him. The universe works in mysterious ways, and sometimes the line between order and chaos is simply relative.
Following is not a perfect movie by any means. It’s noticeably low budget in a bad way. Some of the acting is flat when it comes to more dramatic scenes, there are some fight sequences that are very poorly choreographed, and thinking about the ultimate “plan” that is revealed about the end shows a few plot holes. But the tight screenplay, the crazy structuring, and the devilishly clever twist at the end are so engrossing that they are more than enough to make up for those flaws.
Compared to the rest of Nolan’s career, this has the smallest scope out of all of them. It’s only an hour and ten minutes long and rushes by rather quickly, even though it definitely sticks with you long after its over. I will say it’s probably his most confusing film. That’s not a good or bad thing, just an observation. Part of what makes movies like Memento and Inception so well-crafted is that in spite of all the different levels it’s play in, you can still understand them. Following is much harder to understand, not just because of the structure but also because of the way character motivations change in a blink and how their plans align with so many different moving parts and unquantifiable factors coming into play.
While I didn’t totally understand it, I was still able to get the gist of it, and I was still able to be absorbed by it’s grainy mood, twisty narrative, and deeper subtext. Following is a damn good debut feature, but it’s one that only hints at the potential within Christopher Nolan.
Next time, we will look at what happens when that potential is totally fulfilled with his next movie: The 2000 classic Memento.
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See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve gotta find a pen. Gotta find a pen, gotta find a pen, pen, pen, pen, pen…