Criterion // 1998 // 70 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // January 10th, 2013
You're never alone.
Christopher Nolan's debut film is also the director's first movie to receive the prestigious Criterion treatment.
A struggling young writer (Jeremy Theobald) spends his days following strangers around London, looking for inspiration for his book. One day, he's spotted by the man he's following, who introduces himself as Cobb (Alex Haw) and invites the writer into a new pastime: they begin staking out apartments, breaking into them only when they know they are vacant and stealing small objects just to make the occupants realize how close they came to losing everything. They're providing a kind of service, Cobb explains. The pair enter into a partnership, but that becomes strained when the writer grows attached to a blonde woman (Lucy Russell) whose apartment they robbed. It turns out she's being blackmailed by her gangster boyfriend so that she won't turn him in for murder. The writer agrees to help. Things only get complicated from there.
It makes sense that Criterion would make Christopher Nolan's first movie, Following, the first movie from the critically acclaimed and fanboy-adored director released under their label. There is so much of the filmmaker on display here that it might just be his most personal movie, if it weren't for Inception.
Consider what the film contains: You have a thief named Cobb (also the name of Leonardo DiCaprio's thief protagonist in Inception). You have story told out of traditional chronological order. You have a story about men with unusual jobs who are sidelined by their own obsessions. You have surprise twists in the narrative -- Nolan was a fan of what he would later refer to as "The Prestige" even in his earliest work. Many of the hallmarks of we've come to associate with Christopher Nolan are evident in Following, only on a much smaller scale. It's a movie of basically three characters, taking place primarily in small apartments. It's an interesting exercise to watch Nolan, who now makes movies on a scale rivaled perhaps only by James Cameron, work through so many of his regular themes in a smaller, more intimate fashion. Following has the feel of great film noir (for reasons more than just because it was photographed in black and white) or tightly constructed crime fiction. It plays much like a short story, never overstaying its length at a brisk 70 minutes. Because the running time is so condensed and the film moves along at such a quick clip, it's tempting to watch it again as soon as it's over if for no other reason than to see if the movie has played fair once Nolan has finally shown his hand.
Where Following feels the most like a departure from the Christopher Nolan we now know in its look. Shot on the cheap on black and white 16mm, the movie's handheld photography makes it feel, at times, like a student film. A very good student film, but a student film nonetheless. When you consider what Nolan's movies would eventually come to look like -- in particular his collaborations with DP Wally Pfister -- there's very little of his visual style on display here. That's not to say that the movie doesn't have a clearly defined visual style or that Nolan hasn't carefully planned all of his shots (he's one of the more meticulous filmmakers currently working, like a pop art Kubrick). But the movie feels looser, more improvisational. It's something that would carry over into the director's next effort, Memento, but the style feels more at home in that movie; Leonard Shelby is literally making it all up as he goes along. With Following, it feels more like a choice necessitated by limitations than a conscious decision to best serve the material. No matter. The style works. It's worth examining only because it's a constant reminder that you're watching a first film -- the introduction to a filmmaker not yet fully formed. To be fair, though, Nolan comes more formed than most at this stage.
Criterion's 1080p HD transfer on the new Blu-ray of Following is terrific, bringing gorgeous contrast to the black and white photography and stripping away any defects or noise so all that's left is a ton of good detail under a layer of film-like grain. Though shot on the cheap (on 16mm), the movie looks very good in high def. Criterion has provided two lossless audio options: the original mono mix and a remixed 5.1 track. Though the first is technically more faithful to the source (and befitting the film's low-fi feel), the remixed surround track is much stronger and the preferable of the two. Dialogue remains clear throughout, and while the film's audio is never showy, the 5.1 track is clever in the way that it makes use of the surround channels to good effect.
Criterion, the studio that basically invented bonus features, does their usual terrific job in the supplemental department. Nolan's commentary from the original DVD release has been brought over, but Criterion has recorded a new video interview with the director that runs nearly a half hour and reflects not just on the making of the movie, but on his body of work up to that time (it was recorded in 2010). There are three script-to-scene comparisons with sequences in the movie, so you can compare how the finished movie stacks up against what was originally written. Nolan's first short film, "Doodlebug," is also included (in 1080i HD, no less), for fans who want to see how the filmmaker got his start even further back than Following. Rounding out the bonus features are two trailers and an option that allows the viewer to watch the movie in chronological order. Oddly enough, it's not that different of a movie; unlike some of the director's other movies, the achronology in Following doesn't seem to serve much narrative purpose. It just makes for a somewhat more compelling mystery, the benefits of which I suppose should not be shortchanged.
As a big fan of Christopher Nolan, I'm happy to have finally seen Following and, consequently, to finally have seen every one of his movies. It works as a movie and as a curiosity, even if it's not one of his best efforts. It's very much a first movie. I can't even compare it to something like Reservoir Dogs, though, which had more polish out of the gate. Following is comparable more to something like Darren Aronofsky's Pi, which isn't bad company to be in. Criterion has done a great job on a title that's worth owning for reasons greater than just being a Christopher Nolan completist. It's a pretty terrific little movie.
A fascinating first feature. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 70 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Alternate Cut
* Short Film