Vanishing Act: Review of Christopher Nolan’s “Following” (1998)

From the director of "Oppenheimer" (2023) and "Following" (1998), a snapshot of Christopher Nolan's latter film, featuring a black-and-white portrait of a man staring out into a city.

Having watched this year’s 3-hour-long Oppenheimer a few weeks ago, I decided it’d be neat to go back to the very beginning, to Christopher Nolan’s first feature, 1998’s independent Following, the tale of an unemployed, would-be writer who gets caught up in the schemes of a charismatic criminal. At a miniscule 70 minute runtime, one might be tempted to think that the two are wildly different. On the surface, yes, they are, but even in Nolan’s debut his cinematic brand is evident.

Jim Emerson’s point that Nolan arrives here nearly fully formed as an artist isn’t far off the mark. All the tricks (sans the lavish budgets and big-name casts) of his trade are present: the fragmented, dove-tailing plot(s); un-telegraphed cuts (the film was shot by Nolan, and edited well by him alongside Gareth Heal); his affinity for doubles; an icy femme fatale; and the presence of a conniving mastermind who manipulates the events unfolding onscreen unbeknownst to either the characters or the audience. (Sometimes this mastermind is the protagonist, sometimes the antagonist, sometimes Nolan himself.) Nolan is one of those puzzle-box directors, less keen on profound themes and deep character portraits than he is on malleable chronology and upending audience expectations through deft narrative turns. When he does try to tackle big themes, such as with love in Interstellar, he fumbles, although the end result is almost always still entertaining.

Noted for its long production time due to a shoe-string (less than £7,000!) budget with a cast and crew who were already employed and thus unavailable for weekday work, Following is Christopher Nolan at his hungriest, with his back to the wall and doing his darndest to work with/against the limitations posed. Such limitations mirror those the film’s protagonist—played by Jeremy Theobald, credited as Young Man, self-identified as “Bill”—imposes on himself when he takes to following, or shadowing, people in order to separate them out from the masses and see them as individuals, as well as potential subjects for a book. No following women down dark alleys, and never the same person twice, etc. It’s when he breaks the second rule that the trouble for “Bill” begins.

Following is a solid first feature, and especially impressive given the material constraints of its production. Compare this with something like John Cassavetes‘s Shadows, for instance (both were independently funded on small budgets, the debut of a famed director, in black and white) and the difference is stark. Shadows is free-wheeling, improvisatory, slack in most places, whereas Following is taut, brisk and disciplined. Of course, the results were natural outgrowths of each director’s ethos but it goes to show how much of a value restraint is when one’s resources are limited from the get-go.

It’s somewhat of a disappointment, then, that Nolan veers from the pondering, almost existential opening of the Young Man’s obsession with shadowing that might’ve brought the story into the grounded, relational territories of a Cassavetes and thus (potentially) one-up him at his own game. Like Shadows mixed with Blow-up and take your pick of British gangster flicks. Instead, the plot forgets about character development in any deeper sense and weaves inexorably towards the final, bloody conclusion ending in the Young Man’s implication in two murders, while Cobb the real criminal (played by a fiendishly debonair Alex Haw) gets away scot-free, having successfully crafted the Young Man as his virtual double. The very ending, with Cobb literally vanishing in a crowd, nicely parallels the film’s opening moments.

It’s an obvious freshman’s attempt, though, however ingeniously plotted, with Theobald’s flat delivery leaving much to be desired. Lucy Russell as the blond femme fatale fares only a little better. Haw as Cobb is the best of the trio if only because he seems to be having a lot more fun in the role, as he was definitely gifted the lion’s share of good lines. And while the plotting is clever on a technical level, once certain twists are at play, the outcome becomes quite predictable, and there really is no emotional payoff at the end given how the characters have been purposefully flayed of any relatable characteristics: Cobb and the Blonde are clear psychopaths, while “Bill” is a gullible dope who starts out as a creep (but not a sexual one, mind you! It’s an innocent sort of stalking he’s taken up, you see…) and ends up committing real murder for a woman he claims to love despite zero chemistry being demonstrated by the actors under Christopher Nolan’s supervision.

And while one might admire the dove-tailing plot and how it manages to cohere at the end, one might also wonder what the greater point of it is. The weaving reveals nothing deeper about the characters, other than the uncovering of hidden agendas, which is titillating in a superficial sense, but after the shock occurs? What then? While I can’t exactly fault Nolan for experimenting in his feature debut, the charges of an “over-cooked” plot have a certain ring of truth to them:

The script was written along the lines of what I see as the most interesting aspect of film noir and crime fiction; not baroque lighting setups and sinister villains, but simply that character is ultimately defined by action. In a compelling story of this genre we are continually being asked to rethink our assessment of the relationship between the various characters, and I decided to structure my story in such a way as to emphasize the audience’s incomplete understanding of each new scene as it is first presented.

Sure, but Nolan’s rationale would have more impact if the characters had any real depth to uncover. And what is Cobb if not the most sinister of villains: a deviant, thief, heartless manipulator and cold-blooded killer?

It’s a problem that persists over twenty years on, in Oppenheimer: there the plot dovetails back and forth in time, but in a film whose subject matter (WWII, the Manhattan Project, the physicist himself) is perhaps the most copiously scrutinized in the modern era, why the need to mess about with chronology? What, just to reveal that Lewis Strauss had a hate-boner for the man for embarrassing him over radioisotope sales? It’s not a very great stretch of time being spanned, to begin with, and Robert Oppenheimer conveys too little change to warrant such. Plus, at least in the film, he comes across as exceedingly uninteresting, and the hand-wringing about his feelings of guilt for Hiroshima and Nagasaki are overplayed, so the hyper-focus on him seems excessive.

But I digress. Or do I: is it not odd that Christopher Nolan has exhibited so little desire to stretch himself narratively beyond what mechanical wizardry his reputation can afford? The puzzle-box schtick had run its course with the sterile Dunkirk. And while I haven’t seen Tenet, its divisiveness at least implies that popular audiences are beginning to turn their nose to the machinations, as well. Were it not for the film’s concurrent release with Greta Gerwig’s Barbie, and the silly social media viral trends that accompanied the unironic-ironic hype, would Oppenheimer have even garnered as much adulation as it has so far?

Who knows. Maybe what Nolan really needs is a shock to the system, another box office/critical failure along the lines of Tenet to force him to change tack and try fresher techniques. As it stands, Following showed promise, promise that would eventually find fulfillment in the great Memento two years later. But after that, it’s a vanishing act. There might come a day when Nolan quits fiddling around with IMAX lenses and returns to the creation of art qua art—not simply the stylization of blockbusters. When/if that urge ever dove-tails back around, I’ll be the first in line at the cinema, trust me.

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If you enjoyed this review of Christopher Nolan’s Following, consider supporting us and get patron-only content on our Patreon page. This will help the growth of this site, the automachination YouTube channel, and the ArtiFact Podcast. Recent episodes include a debunking of Robin DiAngelo’s corporate brand of antiracisma dissection of Barack Obama’s cultural legacy with Holocaust scholar Norman Finkelstein, and a discussion with political scientist Benjamin Studebaker on the chronic crisis of American democracy.

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