Following, Christopher Nolan’s debut film, concerns a hero that continues to haunt the director’s subsequent work. A man (Jeremy Theobald), who dubiously calls himself Billy at one point, is aimless and disconnected from society. Somewhat intelligent but gullible due to boredom and egotism, he wanders the streets, unemployed, alone, barely getting by in a shabby flat that might not meet the standards of your most forgiving and drunken university student. Longing for some sort of meaningful contact with another human being, the man begins to follow pedestrians on the streets at random, which quickly leads him to trouble.
Nolan’s films, whether they’re concerned with a bizarre form of memory loss, a guilty cop, a dream thief, or Batman, have continued to tell the story of a guilty weirdo who resorts to desperate antisocial actions in an attempt to free himself from his own head and live what some would call a “normal life.” Nolan’s films are obsessive portraits of obsessives, and the director’s increasingly tedious fussiness—most pointedly manifested in the scripts, which have grown more and more reliant on explicit thematic cue cards—implies that these films are personal statements that have, at first glance, been disguised as genre films in an effort to render them accessible to wide audiences. (In fact, Nolan admits to that function of crime fiction in his work in an excellent interview included on this Blu-ray.)
Following is a remarkably confident first step for Nolan, especially when one takes into consideration some of the limitations that are traditional to first films made with virtually no budget. Nolan shot the film on weekends over a period of a year, which allowed him and the cast to work out the multiple implications of the line readings as the full context of the nonlinear tale is revealed. The film, particularly when compared to unwieldy behemoths like Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, is a refreshingly trim, becoming 70 minutes that don’t overstay their welcome or overstate the obvious. We’re allowed to intuitively feel our way into Following‘s world, and by the end, we feel we’ve only touched the surface of the rot lurking underneath.
As with every other Nolan film, Following has been rigorously constructed on every level, but there’s an illusion of improvised spontaneity that’s usually not present in the director’s work. Objects, which are always imbued with multiple portentous meanings in Nolan’s films (think the foreshadowing function of the birdcage in his unfairly unappreciated The Prestige), are cannily used in Following to keep us apprised of the shifting chronologies as well as to assert the nameless man’s metaphorical longing for a life that’s permanent and tangible, a life he ironically pursues by wandering the streets.
But the objects are never hammered directly into our consciousness, and that can partially be attributed to the run-and-gun shooting method that Nolan had to adapt to make the film. The rough, gritty look of Following, which was shot in black and white on 16mm, quite beautifully suggests an enveloping netherworld that’s surprisingly reminiscent of Eraserhead, and these elusive textures enliven Nolan’s careful planning.
In the tradition of many English crime films, Following is also fueled by a subtext of class resentment that has also continued to occupy Nolan throughout his career. The man is rejected from society, or perhaps has rejected himself before giving society a chance, and his subsequent misbehavior represents both a rebuff to society as well as a yearning for its approval. The man’s first scent of approval ultimately damns him, as it has in a number of Nolan’s subsequent films, thus revealing Following to be less a crime thriller than an impressively intense existentialist whimper of defeat.
Restored from a new digital transfer of the film, the Criterion Collection has done an exemplary job of lending Following a deep, nearly velvety luster that Christopher Nolan probably could only dream of while shooting the film. But this upgrade hasn't compromised the sparse even occasionally crude textures that are pivotal to the picture's effectiveness. No flaws traditional to refurbishing old or low-budget films are present, and the newfound clarity of the image is simply breathtaking. The sound mix has received a similar upgrade, as the 5.1 track presents an impressive and newfound density of ambient noises while deepening the dimensions of a score that was once flat due to the scarcity of Nolan's recording resources. For completist prosperity, though, the monoaural track has also been included.
Not given to the kind of self-congratulatory joshing around that frequently renders audio commentaries insufferable, Nolan provides a detailed analysis of his strategies for solving the various problems that presented themselves while shooting Following. Nolan's methods, while somewhat dated for the contemporary digitally empowered aspiring filmmaker, still make for engaging and inspiring storytelling, particularly in regard to Nolan's fashioning of a neighborhood from spare places scattered throughout London, as well as his intricate rehearsals that afforded the actors the opportunity to express the subtext necessary of their performances. The excellent new interview with Nolan essentially covers the same ground, but in a more concentrated form. A chronological edit of the film deftly affirms Nolan's decision to favor a nonlinear structure that more vividly conveys an impression of isolated cluelessness that greatly works in the film's favor. A side-by-side comparison of the script with passages from the film is a fine idea that's hampered by the fuzziness of the images of the script pages. Perhaps the most interesting supplement is Doodlebug, a creepy Kafkaesque short directed by Nolan that introduced him to many of the people he would work with on Following. There are also several trailers and a booklet featuring a fine essay by critic Scott Foundas.
Christopher Nolan's first film is a polished and disturbing introduction to the work of, for better and worse, one of the most influential contemporary pop filmmakers.