I just realized something: Christopher Nolan peaked in 1998. I've not been a fan of his for awhile, as I find The Dark Knight and Inception to be over-produced summer blockbusters that display none of the brains of movies like Memento and The Prestige (for the record, complicated films aren't necessarily smart ones). But having just watched Following, the writer/director's first feature, I can confidently say that he hasn't come close to replicating the joyous suspense in anything he's made since becoming famous.
Shot in black-and-white and filmed in London, Following concerns a struggling writer who sometimes goes by the name "Bill" (Jeremy Theobald). We meet him in a police interrogation room, where he recounts the last few weeks of his life to a cop (John Nolan). He admits to following people, ostensibly as behavioral research for his novel. What begins as a time-killing exercise evolves into a game with its own set of rules; eventually, one of his marks catches him in the act while dining at a cafe. The man, a dapper Hugh-Grant-type named Cobb (Alex Haw) approaches Bill's table and invites himself to sit.
You wouldn't know it to look at him, but Cobb is a burglar. He carries a duffel bag full of CDs and keepsakes, and his pockets are lined with surgeon's gloves and women's panties. Out of embarrassment and intrigue, Bill accompanies Bob to a flat in the middle of the afternoon; they enter using a key that the owners have stupidly left on top of the door frame. Inside, Cobb shares his philosophy of thievery. It's a beautiful spiel that reveals him to be not just a common criminal but a truly devious meddler who wants his victims to know how deeply they've been violated.
Soon, Bill and Cobb are robbing places together, pawning goods and pocketing loads of cash. On Cobb's advice, Bill cleans himself up with a shave, haircut, and smart suit of his own. His newfound confidence helps him hit on an aloof woman (Lucy Russell) at an underground pub. Bill is nothing like her small-time-mob-boss boyfriend, and that excites her. They begin seeing each other, and the tightrope of Bill's relationship and new career gets narrower and narrower.
To give anything else away would be unfair. As you might expect from Nolan, some characters aren't who they appear to be, and a lot of secrets are hinted at in Following's non-linear presentation. But the movie had me from the first frame to the last with its unusual performances, natural dialogue, and writing so observant it borders on non-fiction.
Unlike later attempts at creating modern noir (the puzzlingly over-praised Brick, jumps to mind), Following doesn't fall into the trap of genre trappings. Nolan realizes that noir is an attitude and not a mode of dress or affected, 1940s speech pattern. By writing his characters as kooky but real, we focus on our desire to know more about them instead of paying attention to the graves they're digging for one another. In particular, Haw plays Cobb as such a suave, compelling freak show that I couldn't take my eyes off of him--which is exactly what Nolan wants for both Bill and the audience.
I don't know if shooting in black-and-white was an artistic decision or a financial one. Whatever the case, Following is a beautiful picture. Nolan's characters fetishize the details of every item they touch and every room they walk into; in this way, the daylight robberies serve two purposes: to contrast the thieves' ghastly activities with the mood created by warm light streaming through shade-less windows, and to allow us to enjoy things we shouldn't be looking at, right along with the characters. Later in the film, as Bill's situation snowballs beyond anyone's ability to help, the details become less definable, as darks and heavy grays take over the screen. In a way, our difficulty in discerning everything that's going on mirrors the protagonist's struggle to learn the truth of his situation.
It's sad to think of what Christopher Nolan accomplished on a nothing budget with a modest crew, compared to what he's cranking out now with all the money in the world and an army of the industry's best hired-hands. The key, I think, is that he's lost the intimacy that movies like Following, Memento, and, to an extent, The Prestige offered. He's much better at realizing and wrangling a handful of characters in tighter narrative spaces than overseeing two-plus-hour action films that are meant to be only as challenging as the dumbest guy in the auditorium will allow. This isn't to say that I hate Nolan's modern output, I simply see through the spectacle and understand that one original performance doesn't make a whole movie great--nor do trippy dream-talk and some transforming CGI buildings.
I would love to see Nolan return to short-form, big-idea filmmaking. He clearly has (or had) a knack for making an epic out of three characters talking, and with that kind of wit and imagination there's no limit to what he might do if either confined to a smaller budget or somehow magically forced to relive what it felt like to be hungry and eager to prove himself. Following is a starving artist's swing for the fences, whereas Inception is the buffet in a fat-cat's skybox.