'Bill strolling against gray background, then in crowd scene
the Following poster

Exploring Inception’s twists and inspirations online after viewing, I was quickly disabused of the notion that it was Christopher Nolan’s sixth feature. His career, early shorts aside, did not begin with Memento. It launched with a 70-minute, “no-budget” film called Following released in 1999.

While the movie doesn’t, to me, provide any of the clues to Inception’s potential interpretation that certain sly comments about it suggested, it’s definitely worth a look if you’re a Nolan admirer or merely curious. You can place it in the context of his oeuvre’s ruminations on the nature of identity, unreliable narrators/narratives, and often idiosyncratic approaches to storytelling. Or you can just watch it as the work of a talented new filmmaker making the most of his limited resources, a decade before The Dark Knight would become an international, critically acclaimed franchise smash (despite not being very good; I await your letters). Either way, Following is compelling enough that it’s hardly time wasted.

Following mostly follows Bill, who, unemployed and interested in becoming a writer, has taken up following people on the crowded London streets. The idea at first is to become intrigued by strangers’ routines to the extent that it sparks his imagination, but — under the name Daniel Lloyd — Bill is soon deeper in at least one man’s business than he intended.

Head shots of 3 main characters each with eyes wandering off screen
Theobald as The Young Man, Haw as Cobb, and Russell as The Lady

“My name’s Cobb,” says the man, and, yes, Cobb is also the name of Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in Inception, but I don’t see evidence of any deeper meaning in that repetition than Nolan favoring certain actors or themes — except perhaps as a wink to those in the know. Alex Haw, who plays Cobb, has both the looks and the rakish charm of a mashup between Peter Dinklage and Hugh Grant. Bill is portrayed by Jeremy Theobald, who once clean-shaven resembles a skinny, less confident Robert Mitchum with bits of David Bowie and Kevin Rahm. Lucy Russell, as The Lady, is unfortunately not as strong a screen presence as her co-stars, but don’t let the generic name fool you as to her importance; Bill is referred to in the credits simply as The Young Man, and the main cast is rounded out by The Bald Man and The Policeman.

There are aspects of noir in all Nolan’s movies, if you care to apply that label beyond
its origins in 1940s American cinematic stews of sex, crime, and psychodrama. In terms of its plot, Following echoes the neo-noir of 1997’s The Spanish Prisoner as much as it does 1944’s classic Double Indemnity, but its black-&-white, often chiaroscuro appearance ultimately — after the thrust of the plot becomes clear — reinforces its classification as almost textbook noir. That appearance is, like everything else about Following, purely down to Nolan as writer, director, and cinematographer.

Following’s chronological intercutting isn’t as profound or integral a part of the story
as Memento’s, although it certainly adds suspense to the conclusion. I suspect that it’s an integral part of the storytelling as far as Nolan is concerned, but it also feels a bit like a gimmick designed to keep both Nolan and the audience interested in a scenario that might otherwise be lacking meat — perhaps also strengthened by the taut running time and developments that are referenced or intuited yet not actually seen. The jumps back and forth in time are potentially confusing at first if one doesn’t know to expect them, but not nearly as distracting as the intermittent techno-synth soundtrack, which made me consider hitting mute and sticking to subtitles.

Bill and Cobb murkily lit in an apartment with sticker of Batman's insignia on the door
duality, shadows, and a remarkably prescient sign of things to come

Like his Inception namesake, Cobb’s a thief — and it just occurred to me even as he merely enters people’s homes rather than their dreams he nevertheless gets inside Bill’s head. The Cobb of Following also makes his burglaries as intimate an act as Inception’s subconscious invasions; he delights in not only taking random items in addition to valuables but sometimes planting new ones (shades of Inception) to create a chaos and unease in his victims (exactly what Inception’s Cobb tries to avoid), which he proclaims will lead to self-enlightenment.

“Everyone has a box,” Cobb says to Bill of his favorite discovery at each address, an “unconscious collection” of, you’ll pardon the term, mementos that define them more truly than the display they put on for themselves and others through their intentional decor. And while standing by my earlier assertion that Following’s Cobb is not some kind of explicit doppelganger of Inception’s, further parallels between Nolan’s first and latest features do become apparent in thinking about the box and its keepsakes. It’s hardly a Rosetta Stone, but Following is clearly of a piece with the filmmaker’s body of work, enjoyable in its own right and essential viewing in a comparative study.

Following is available on disc from Sony, presented by Next Wave and produced by Nolan with Jeremy Theobald and Emma Thomas. Special features include commentary from Nolan, the ability to see alternate camera angles with the shooting script, and an option to play scenes from the film in chronological order. [Update: It has since been re-released under the Criterion Collection banner from a newly restored digital transfer with other extras.]

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  1. Great writeup, Blam! I'm glad you're blogging again. When are you finally gonna review Inception?

  2. I just watched inception last night. I cried twice. I don't think you're supposed to cry during this movie. I wasn't confused, just sad and then happy... ish.

  3. Hmm...I did not know Memento wasn't Nolan's first movie. Thanks for bringing this to my attention; I shall have to check it out.

    @Joan: I don't think you're supposed to cry during this movie. I wasn't confused, just sad and then happy... ish.

    Eh, I got a little teary at one point. And I'm a dude. ;)