Image Credit to No Film School
In honor of Dunkirk’s upcoming release, I want to look back at the works of Christopher Nolan, the picture’s director. I’m a massive fan of Nolan’s career and have liked every film he’s ever made; however, I haven’t seen most in years. I hope as I go through these movies, I’m reminded of why I love his work, find new aspects of his filmography to appreciate, and am able to convey my passion and excitement for his artistry. If I find that this rewatch is a disappointment, and that I’ve turned on Nolan (God forbid), then my hope is to document why.
Before my latest rewatch, Following struck me as a compelling film more for what it represented to Christopher Nolan than for its aesthetics. Not only was the picture Nolan’s first film, but it was an independent work made for a meager $6,000, shot with non-professional actors and equipment, and filmed over the weekends because everyone involved with it had a day job. And yet, it had received good reviews, won festival awards, and launched the career of one of today’s biggest directors. The making of Following was an inspirational tale of how far hard work could get you.
It was only recently that Following stopped seeming like a launching pad for Nolan’s future and revealed itself as a taut, tense, and heartbreaking psychological thriller, a complete and masterful work.
The film is centered on a nameless protagonist referred to in the credits as “The Young Man” (Jeremy Theobald). Just out of university, unemployed, and a writer who gets little writing done (hello!), The Young Man starts following people on the streets of London to make his life interesting and exciting. One day, one of the men he’s following, Cobb (Alex Haw), catches him in the act. Instead of berating him, Cobb offers to let The Young Man accompany him on his job: robbing people. As The Young Man breaks in to apartments, he begins to find the work compelling and meaningful. He gets roped in, which would be hazardous enough considering the consequences that come with stealing property. However, his attraction to this criminal lifestyle becomes far more threatening when the film reveals that Cobb is more dangerous than an ordinary petty burglar, and that his mark is not random people, but the nameless protagonist.
What amazed me about Following is how restrained the picture is. By “restrained,” I’m not referring to the budget or runtime restrictions, which obviously place their own constraints on what can transpire in the film. Instead, I speak of Nolan’s style, of the limitations he places on his own directing, which allow him to smoothly convey his story and amplify the emotions at the heart of it. The first place I noticed this restraint was in Following’s visuals. Nolan decides to fracture his story into four separate timelines, a complex editing choice he balances out by using repetitive visual markers to signify which timeline the story is taking place in. The visual markers, like the hair of a character, the expensive or cheap clothes of the protagonist, and a black eye, force Nolan to give up on demonstrating visual versatility or experimentation for the sake of clarity, but the choice pays off. Forty-five minutes in to the film, I was delightfully surprised at how I hadn’t lost myself for a single moment in the work’s complex narrative.
This clarity results in a tight, gripping film. As the movie unfolds, it becomes so easy to process information, the twists and turns, the frightening sense that the protagonist is becoming more and more trapped in Cobb’s master plan, that the suspense ratchets up. Each new story development made me worried of how in over his head The Young Man is, and how shattering it will be for him when he realizes that. The tension is augmented by another choice of restraint in Nolan’s style, his use of silence. Nolan employs weird, sad, and ominous score music in the picture; however, in certain scenes, he eliminates the music, letting silence (and dialogue when necessary) fill the soundtrack. He seems to do this with the film’s most suspenseful scenes, the moment when The Young Man visits an attractive woman whose home he’s robbed (Lucy Russell playing “The Blonde” in the credits) and another moment in which The Blonde is revealed to be part of Cobb’s ruse. The lack of score music in these scenes, the feeling that the filmmaker has disappeared and that the Young Man is alone as we learn just how vulnerable he is, makes these sequences standout as some of the more unsettling and disturbing ones in a work filled with them.
However, Nolan’s restrained style does more than just heighten suspense; it transforms the film from a taut thriller into a devastating tragedy. The simplicity of his filmmaking, particularly as the story becomes more complex and intricate, shifts the film from being merely a clever puzzle towards being a heartbreaking tale of a figure caught in a maze that he thinks he’s solved, but that he has not and cannot escape from, a predicament that ensures ruin for both himself and those he cares about, like The Blonde. Nolan’s restraint carries such emotional weight because Following’s complex story is woven by Cobb; the picture’s puzzle is his engineered work, a tale that allows him to fatten his pockets by wreaking havoc on unsuspecting people.
In contrast, Following’s filmmaking focuses mostly on the nameless protagonist, his feelings, his obsessions, the threats to him, and the people he cares for. As plot details pile up, the camera’s ability to stay on the face of The Young Man, to show what he sees, to concern itself with what concerns or should concern him, and evoke what he feels is remarkable and moving. Nolan’s eye chooses not to get lost chasing the complicated connections that form Cobb’s meticulously constructed web of deceit, but to follow The Young Man’s small, pathetic, and extremely minor existence. The director chooses to remind viewers that there is a human cost to Cobb’s clever plot. The filmmaking, then, unlike the story of Following, belongs not to Cobb, but to Nolan. His style expresses the empathy and sadness he feels for his protagonist; it illustrates that he sees The Young Man not as an amusing figure to play with, but as a tragic man who got too deeply involved in a situation to be saved. In doing so, Nolan’s restrained style turns what could’ve been a shrewd calculation, a work meant to show off what he could do given a bigger budget, more runtime, and better cast, into a stunning work of art, a demonstration of just how much he can do with what little he has.