Skip to main content

That’s what it’s all about. Interrupting someone’s life.

Following
(1998)

(SPOILERS) The Nolanverse begins here. And for someone now delivering the highest-powered movie juggernauts globally – that are not superhero or James Cameron movies – and ones intrinsically linked with the “art” of predictive programming, it’s interesting to note familiar themes of identity and limited perception of reality in this low-key, low-budget and low-running time (we won’t see much of the latter again) debut. And, naturally, non-linear storytelling. Oh, and that cool, impersonal – some might say clinical – approach to character, subject and story is also present and correct.

Some of which, one might reasonably assert, is simply down to the limitations of a cast of non-professional actors. Unsurprisingly, Nolan comes armed with a strong premise – his protagonist develops a “pastime” of following strangers around and develops a set of rules to ensure it never becomes dangerous – but I suspect, in part, it’s his savvy of coming up with a twist that got Following noticed. This was, after all, the period of The Usual Suspects, Seven, 12 Monkeys and L.A. Confidential, when pulling the rug from under the viewer had an “artistic”, rather than merely crude, gimmicky (M Night is just around the corner) cachet. With its narrator/flashback structure, Following appears to be mimicking Bryan Singer’s film, in particular (or rather, Christopher McQuarrie’s screenplay).

Our lack of understanding of the full picture is crucial to Nolan’s picture, even as our omniscient narrator knows – or thinks he knows – what is going on “now”. Albeit, while Nolan starts off with the apparent intention to deliver a straight recounting of events, he quickly succumbs to leaping about the place in his attempts to keep the viewer off balance; this would be far more successful in his next picture, where it is intrinsic to the character, rather than simply a tricksy device.

Bill: It was supposed to be completely random. And when it stopped being random, that’s when it started to go wrong.

Bill/Daniel (Jeremy Theobald) begins following Cobb (Alex Haw), who notices his tail and confronts him; Cobb reveals his not dissimilar deviancy. He is a burglar, but rather than seeking to make a packet, his interest is in the lives of his victims, determining their characters and making choices on the scene that will disrupt their lives (beyond simply violating their property). He attempts to make it sound as if he is performing a public service, putting his victims in touch with what they had and their priorities. He successfully inveigles Bill, who becomes involved with one of their targets, the Blonde (Lucy Russell). Bill agrees to help her out with regard to a blackmail situation, but during his theft of the evidence on her, he beats a man with a claw hammer.

The twist reveal is that Cobb and the Blonde have been working together to implicate Bill in a burglary committed by Cobb – whereby Cobb claims he found a murdered woman at the scene of one of his break-ins – but this in turn gives way to a further reveal that Cobb has been lying to the Blonde too, such that Bill will be implicated in her murder. While the first of these twists is neat enough, the second isn’t altogether satisfying. The Blonde being duped follows on too quickly from the revelation that Bill has been to have much impact, and the policeman (Nolan’s uncle John) seems remarkably open-and-shut in his attitude towards a man who would surely be very stupid to turn himself in and concoct a story in the hope it dissuaded them of all the evidence pointing at him.

The biggest problem is performative, though. Nolan isn’t known for his movies’ carrying much emotional import or weight, and Following starts as he means to go on. That’s usually more excusable for his getting in skilled actors to emote the blanks, though. There’s no such luck here. Haw is okay being a smug know-it-all; his traversing such scenes as being happened upon by a returning flat owner and the same person appearing during lunch are among Following’s best. But Theobald is quite stiff, such that the overall effect is one of an intellectual exercise rather than a strong movie in its own right.

Nolan clearly enjoys his Russian doll of revealed perception, or deception, and its notable that Bill will attempt to change his persona – dressing like Cobb, who shares a name with DiCaprio’s character in Inception – in a manner not entirely unlike Batman. The choice of black and white apparently came from practicality – the budget was so low, natural light was the only real option in terms of cinematography – but it adds a degree of stylisation that helps take up some of the slack.

Given Nolan’s attempts to show his auteur-ish cred subsequently, however, it’s sobering that two other, very different stylists hit the ground running the same year – Darren Aronofsky with Pi and Guy Ritchie with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels – something that rather underlines Nolan’s major strength as a conceptualist rather than as a visual craftsmen (I’ve said this numerous times, but for someone who focuses on the action genre, his martialling of spatial geography is not so hot at all).

I’m sure Nolanites will venerate Following as the triumphant start to a career that is now encroaching on the quarter of a century mark. I’d suggest all the elements, good and bad are there nascently, but it remains very much a minor work, and its main idea – the voyeuristic angle – is actually more interesting than the place he takes it (a more standard-issue framing twist).


Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

The Krishna died of a broken finger? I mean, is that a homicide?

Miami Blues (1990) (SPOILERS) If the ‘90s crime movie formally set out its stall in 1992 with Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs , another movie very quietly got in there first at the beginning of the decade. Miami Blues picked up admiring reviews but went otherwise unnoticed on release, and even now remains under-recognised. The tale of “blithe psychopath” Federick J. Frenger, Jr., the girl whose heart he breaks and the detetive sergeant on his trail, director George Armitage’s adaptation of Charles Willeford’s novel wears a pitch black sense of humour and manages the difficult juggling act of being genuinely touching with it. It’s a little gem of a movie, perfectly formed and concisely told, one that more than deserves to rub shoulders with the better-known entries in its genre. One of the defining characteristics of Willeford’s work, it has been suggested , is that it doesn’t really fit into the crime genre; he comes from an angle of character rather than plot or h

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

You think a monkey knows he’s sitting on top of a rocket that might explode?

The Right Stuff (1983) (SPOILERS) While it certainly more than fulfils the function of a NASA-propaganda picture – as in, it affirms the legitimacy of their activities – The Right Stuff escapes the designation of rote testament reserved for Ron Howard’s later Apollo 13 . Partly because it has such a distinctive personality and attitude. Partly too because of the way it has found its through line, which isn’t so much the “wow” of the Space Race and those picked to be a part of it as it is the personification of that titular quality in someone who wasn’t even in the Mercury programme: Chuck Yaeger (Sam Shephard). I was captivated by The Right Stuff when I first saw it, and even now, with the benefit of knowing-NASA-better – not that the movie is exactly extolling its virtues from the rooftops anyway – I consider it something of a masterpiece, an interrogation of legends that both builds them and tears them down. The latter aspect doubtless not NASA approved.

You tampered with the universe, my friend.

The Music of Chance (1993) (SPOILERS) You won’t find many adaptations of Paul Auster’s novels. Original screenplays, yes, a couple of which he has directed himself. Terry Gilliam has occasionally mentioned Mr. Vertigo as in development. It was in development in 1995 too, when Philip Haas and Auster intended to bring it to the screen. Which means Auster presumably approved of Haas’ work on The Music of Chance (he also cameos). That would be understandable, as it makes for a fine, ambiguous movie, pregnant with meaning yet offering no unequivocal answers, and one that makes several key departures from the book yet crucially maintains a mesmerising, slow-burn lure.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .