Thursday, July 14, 2016

Directorial Debut: Christopher Nolan's FOLLOWING

Welcome to a new installment of DIRECTORIAL DEBUT, where we look at some of the best, most interesting, and iconic directors and the films that started their careers. This week we take a look at the Christopher Nolan new-noir film...FOLLOWING.

Christopher Nolan stands as one of the most acclaimed, or at least significant, modern film directors of the 21st century. While his career began in the late 90's, and he'd technically been making shorts since the mid-90's, it was in the 2000's with Memento, Inception, and of course, the Dark Knight Trilogy, that Nolan planted his flag on modern pop culture. And, like many directors of his caliber, Nolan has a very distinctive style, and what's always interesting is watching someone like Nolan develop said style. That's what makes Following so interesting to watch. This film, Nolan's first "feature length" film (okay, it's around 70 minutes, so maybe just barely), shows some of Nolan's trademark visual and thematic trails making themselves known as early as 1998. It also shows some of the growing pains, both as an up-and-coming director with limited resources, as well as a director who was still finding his footing, though, with much more of a grasp than other directors at the same stage of their career.

Following is a neo-noir that follows a nameless protagonist (referred to in the credits as "Young Man") who follows people, mainly out of just an insatiable curiosity. He has no malevolent intent with his tailing, he just, in his own words, is "interested in people." While he, at first, sets guidelines in order to not get into trouble doing this, he soon breaks his own rules. In doing so, he gets a peek into a seedy underbelly that he finds himself unable to resist falling into. Christopher Nolan movies don't tend to be simple affairs, and while the premise is simple enough, Nolan does manage to add extra layers to this story, most notably in its structure. Following is, in a lot of ways, Momento two years before Momento would come out, in that its structure is deliberately nonlinear. The structure ends up following either our protagonist while he's hanging out with a man he meets named Cobb (who, by the way, I'm willing to bet is why Inception's protagonist is named Cobb), while the other stories seem to take place at various points in the near future, which we eventually catch up to.

Though, this does highlight one of the underlying issues with Following, the nonlinear narrative is very interesting, especially for the time, and is effective in planting motifs and for allowing the viewer to organically piece together some of how the story and characters are developing. The trouble is, unlike other films Nolan would make with this kind of structure like Memento or the dream-esque nature of Inception, Following doesn't always do the best job at telegraphing these transitions. The editing in general actually leaves much to be desired, but it's with these transitions in time that they're at their most unclear. A viewer can find their footing if they're paying attention, but it's definitely a film you need to give your full attention. Another issue lies more in its ending, which I won't give away, but has a similar issue to the climax of The Dark Knight Rises, that being of plans that have someone (typically the antagonist) having been two steps ahead of someone and having planned everything from the start, a la Bane or Joker. This is one of those endings like that where I think about it for a second, considering whether or not it's feasible that this person could have planned this so well, and in this case, it reads as a bit far-fetched that everything, or at least most things, that happened here were "according to plan" or anything. It's something of a minor nitpick, but it does kinda diminish the ending, which otherwise, is very well done.

The cast is mostly well chosen. Our protagonist in particular feels genuinely like a regular dude who's in over his head. It helps that this film isn't exactly inundated with familiar faces, but their performances are really well done. Again, we see Nolan's trademark characters that all have some kind of emotional distance, which isn't nearly as cliche here as it is in, say, Dark Knight Rises or Inception, though the latter really works for me. The only one that I feel is a bit of a miscast is the guy playing Cobb. He's playing a bit of a slick con man, but the way he plays his is a bit too hammy for how serious the rest of the movie is. I find myself reminded a lot of Special Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks when I look at him, not helped at all by an off-hand line he has about coffee.

Aside from some of the technical and editing quirks I mentioned, the film is also supremely directed for a first-time director. Nolan shows just how good of a grasp he has on framing, a great use of shadow, and some great cinematography on his end. The script and the direction feel tight, minus some of the inconsistencies with the ending, and it really feels like a Nolan film, through and through, minus the super low budget. Being shot in black and white doesn't completely mask how cheap the film looks, but it does a fine job at making it look as professional as possible, especially since it's ostensibly supposed to be a noir. The look, the style, and the ambition of a Nolan-like figure is all there for any Nolan aficionados to eat up. The film dabbles in a lot of themes ranging from the idea of a distant and cold society to how material items and how appearance define who we are and who we're perceived as, giving film fans a lot of chew on if they want too dive in. So, for probably one of my personal favorite directors in the past 10 years, his debut is most definitely worth checking out, especially now that the Criterion Collection has released a nice DVD and Blu-ray release for it. It's not perfect, and it definitely shows a learning Christopher Nolan, but it's still Nolan through and through.

Tony's Score: 8/10

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