In some ways, Christopher Nolan’s debut feature, Following, shows a budding filmmaker not yet weighed down by a number of the suffocating tics he’s since acquired. Mood often takes precedence over plot; the photography is more expressive and not so literal and stultifying, and the twisty narrative is economical and not overly constructed. It’s refreshing, and at a brisk 70 minutes, it has perhaps the highest ratio of pleasures to running time of anything in Nolan’s filmography. That said, the film is filled with laughably portentous dialogue (exacerbated by inexperienced actors) and features an ending that strains to wrap everything up in a mind-blowing, puzzle-box finale. In other words, it’s a signature Nolan film.
Shot on the fly in grainy black-and-white 16mm, and presenting its events non-chronologically (less schematic than Memento, fortunately), Following opens with Bill (Jeremy Theobald) explaining his newfound obsession with following strangers. An unemployed aspiring writer, he claims to draw inspiration for a forthcoming novel from observing people’s day-to-day habits, but there’s little evidence it’s more than just a time-filler.
When one of his targets notices and confronts him, Bill finds himself under the influence of one far more accomplished — Cobb (Alex Haw) doesn’t just stalk unsuspecting people; he observes their habits and then breaks into their homes, stealing a few things but mostly just rearranging items or planting new ones in a manipulative mind game. He takes Bill under his wing, and soon, the pair is burgling together, with Bill justifying his actions as more fodder for his writing.
Simultaneously, Bill meets and takes a fancy to an unnamed blonde (Lucy Russell), the purported girlfriend of a sleazy underground porn king. That association doesn’t deter Bill, but she’s reluctant to enter into any kind of meaningful relationship with him. As the film cuts between Bill as a shaggy, unkempt burglar and Bill as a clean-cut, seemingly less naïve suitor, questions about his shifting identity and every player’s true intentions begin to emerge.