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Movie Review: Using FOLLOWING to Unlock Christopher Nolan, from MEMENTO through THE DARK KNIGHT RISES

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It’s fitting that Following, the microbudget first feature-film from director Christopher Nolan, comes out on Blu-ray a week after Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises hit the HD format, and by “fitting,” I’m not just talking about marketing synergy (although the good folks at the Criterion Collection were savvy to tie Following to the home media release of 2012’s second-highest grossing movie).  Few directors emerge as fully formed as Nolan did with Following – he and his film belong on the same list that includes Orson Welles and Citizen Kane, Robert Rodriguez and El Mariachi, the Coen Brothers and Blood Simple, Rian Johnson and Brick, the Wachowski siblings and Bound, John Huston and The Maltese Falcon, and Martin Scorsese and Who’s That Knocking at My Door – and that roundness allows Following to play an interesting role within the Nolan canon.  Inside its modest confines (this thing runs a lean and mean seventy minutes, or almost a whole hour shorter than The Dark Knight Rises) lies the key to unlocking Nolan’s creative obsessions and intrigues: it’s the Rosetta Stone for every film he’s ever made.

We start at the beginning, as we always do, except in the case of Following, the beginning is also the end.  The story of an anonymous young man (Jeremy Theobald) whose predilection for stalking random Londoners leads him down an ever-more thorny path of danger and moral decay, Following begins after the fact, as a weary police investigator (John Nolan, Christopher’s uncle) interrogates our hero about a…something gone very wrong.  The rest of the film flashes back and forth, contrasting Theobald’s relatively innocuous vice with the aftermath of the crime for which he’s under arrest.

The chronology immediately becomes a destabilizing agent, a means for Nolan to subvert any expectations we might have about narrative and character, and this fractured editing brings to mind his sophomore feature, the Academy-Award nominated Memento.  Memento sees Nolan using a fragmented structure in a more nuanced fashion – the start-at-the-end timeline reflects the mindset of Memento’s protagonist, a disturbed amnesiac who can’t make short-term memories – but I doubt he’d have done such a good job in Memento if he lacked the on-the-job practice that Following provided.

Following let Nolan test how far he could push non-linear storytelling, and his seven subsequent films have furthered this work in important ways.  Memento turned editing into a character.  Insomnia presents a single, abstracted visual at the jump (a drop of blood blooming into fabric) and slowly recalibrates our awareness of the image over the two hours that follow.  Batman Begins recasts the superhero’s tragic/iconic origin story as memory, delivered in jagged slivers as an adult Bruce Wayne searches for his place in the world.  The Prestige unfolds almost entirely as stories nested inside one another – in the film’s most formally audacious moment, we enter a flashback for Hugh Jackman’s character and then move to another chunk of Christian Bale’s backstory within Jackman’s own flashback.  Inception again begins at the end and then proceeds to treat plot as multiple information/reality layers that the characters can literally delve into as they see fit.  The Dark Knight Rises is infused with memory, as signature flashes from Nolan’s previous two Batman entries plague the main characters at emotional impasses (one scene even has a character confronting a memory that Nolan later reveals to be a lie).  Only The Dark Knight proceeds in a straightforward fashion, though one could argue that Nolan’s characters are supplying the twists in lieu of a skewed chronology; every person, from Heath Ledger’s manic Joker to Aaron Eckhart’s doomed Harvey Dent, exists as a series of flawed contradictions that chip away at the moral absolutes in which most comic-book movies traffic.

That slippery approach to character is also a Nolan staple.  The director has long opined about his love for old film noirs (his interview on Sony’s old The Big Heat DVD is a must for noir and Nolan fans) where the heroes existed as frightening grays as opposed to clearly defined blacks and whites, and Following represents Nolan’s first official run on the genre.  We get a tortured antihero, a charismatic schemer (Alex Haw, whose Cobb shares the same name as Leonardo DiCaprio’s rogue in Inception), a femme fatale (Lucy Russell), and a shadowy, violent cabal of criminals circling the peripheries, and true to Nolan (and noir) form, we’re never quite sure whom to trust.  Theobald has the most overtly sympathetic character, but he’s playing a withdrawn, oddly passive Peeping Tom – we’re drawn more towards Cobb’s antagonist (just as we are to Robin Williams in Insomnia, or Liam Neeson in Batman Begins, or The Joker in The Dark Knight, or the dream thieves in Inception, or Selina Kyle in The Dark Knight Rises), even though his handsome face and quick smile seem to mask darker indulgences.

The characters are minefields, and Nolan takes pains to cast every one of his protagonists in the same ambiguous light.  Memento‘s Leonard Shelby (the great Guy Pearce) barely trusts himself; his condition leaves him (and us) certain that he’s not remembering some pretty ghastly things.  Will Dormer (Al Pacino) from Insomnia is a more cut-and-dry case – we know he’s a bent cop who murdered a suspect and then covered up his misdeeds – but The Prestige’s Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Rupert Angier (Hugh Jackman) are anything but – whenever we think we’ve got these dueling magicians figured out, Nolan tosses in a new angle that radically readjusts our sympathies.  In Inception, Nolan warps Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie-star image by having him play a guy who’s so screwed up that he can no longer separate dreams and reality, and Nolan’s Batman series plays the same game, presenting an image of the Dark Knight as a violent, emotionally stunted kid who wants out of the crime-fighting racket but can barely function when he isn’t donning a mask and punching out criminals.

About the only area where Following doesn’t quite sync up with other Nolan fare is in the budget – the £5000 he spent on it wouldn’t even cover the catering budget for the $250 million Dark Knight Rises.  But for Nolan, money has mattered less than making the most out of every film he’s directed, and his spending approach reflects that mindset.  The production budget on The Dark Knight Rises could finance the GDP of a small country, and we see every penny of it on-screen, from the film’s virtuoso airplane assault, to the underground prison that Big Bad Bane (Tom Hardy) exiles Bruce Wayne to, to the ending assault on Gotham City, which used an estimated 10,000 extras.

The same goes for Following.  Nolan might have been working light, but he ekes out every shilling he can.  Shooting guerilla-style in the streets of London, Nolan employs natural lighting to give his film a you-are-there immediacy, and he never extends his ambitions past what the money could get him.  The Blu-ray has a great interview with Nolan where he talks about eschewing more conventional thriller violence (gunplay, stabbings, explosions) in favor of more psychological damage because gunplay, stabbings, and explosions always look phony when you try to shoot them on the cheap.  Nolan wants to be the only one aware of his limitations, and he’s careful to offer as professional and crisp a feature as £5000 can buy.  In that sense, the fractured chronology becomes a strategy move, a way to lend Following a value-added aesthetic in a simple and cost-effective fashion.

Ultimately, Nolan’s efforts make Following feel complete.  It isn’t rough like many independent features because Nolan isn’t interested in aiming too high – he just wants to make the best movie he can with the materials he’s got (only David Julyan’s tinny electronica score belies the film’s low-budget intentions).  That instinct permeates everything he’s ever done; it’s the defining characteristic of a Christopher Nolan film.

Criterion’s Blu-ray gives Following about as impressive a digital scrubbing as possible.  The 16mm footage is grainy but not unpleasantly so, and the two lossless audio tracks – the original LPCM monaural take and a newly mixed 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack – prove surprisingly immersive and detailed.

Features are many.  We get a half-hour interview with Nolan from 2010; a linear edit of the film (presented in HD!); three script-to-screen comparisons; a great Nolan commentary on the theatrical cut; Nolan’s “Doodlebug” short film; two theatrical trailers; and a booklet featuring an essay from critic Scott Foundas.  There’s no fat here.

When Memento premiered in 2001, critics and audiences were heralding the arrival of a major filmmaker, but the evidence in Nolan’s favor was already in play; 1998’s Following is just as assured and composed a picture as its more widely beloved follow-up.

Following is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.