14 January 2008

Movielog, Following

Following, 1998
Written and directed by Christopher Nolan
70 minutes

I follow people, the young clean-cut man says.

You mean like women? asks an older, more grizzled questioner.

Like anybody. It was supposed to be totally random...

And here I will tread lightly, because this is effectively the opening shots of Christopher Nolan's Following, a decade old now but retaining all of the power it must have had when it was first shot, and showing all the promise that one would expect from the man who would end up directing Batman Begins, the American remake of Insomnia, and Memento, and to say much more is to ruin the myriad pleasures of the film.

Suffice to say that the young man (never named in the film), a writer doing a kind of ill-defined research into people's lives, starts following people to see where they go. A bit here, a bit there, and where's the harm -- who hasn't sat in a restaurant, bar, or coffeeshop and "people-watched"? But the young man begins to break his own rules, following the same people for several days, following them to their homes, to work, and then one of his followees turns around and... sits down for a chat and a cup of coffee.

The man's name is Cobb, and he's a burgular. He breaks into people's houses, and he sees something in the young man's voyeurism that he decides to use to their mutual advantage...

More about the plot I can't say, for although I've ended the synopsis some seven or eight minutes into the film, to say more is to begin to ruin the many wonderful things in the movie. For what starts out as a sort of oddball character study quickly begins to feel more like tightly-paced neo-noir, as the simple pleasures of following people lead down ever-darker paths that end in.... Well, that'd ruin the fun, wouldn't it?

The cast is superb, especially Alex Haw as Cobb, who I am astonished to learn from his IMDB page has never acted in any other films. He's got a sort of affable manner about him, for a burgular, intelligent and witty, incisive and filled with self-knowledge -- he's the kind of robber you'd almost like to have visit your home. Almost, I said.

Nolan chooses black-and-white for the film, probably at least partially because of the reduced cost of photography and lab developing fees, but it's the right choice for this sort of story. What is it about black-and-white film that brings to life the sorts of moral grays of this type of story more than a color palette would? And the photography makes many of the actual items stolen blurry, less-focused, than the faces of Cobb and the young man as they do the stealing. You get the feeling that what, exactly, is being stolen is almost beside the point, but... and again, I'm going a bit too far.

This is a really amazing film, and at a spare seventy minutes it accomplishes more than many films with twice the running-time. There's not an ounce of fat on this baby, and at the end we in the audience are left wondering, watching, waiting.... There are a few details of the film's progression that struck me as just slightly convenient for the plot (for instance, how could one of the characters know that a hammer was going to be left where it was?), but overall this is among the first-rank of low-budget films, on par with Pi and Clerks and Reservoir Dogs.

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