Before The Dark Knight and The Prestige -- even before Memento -- Christopher Nolan had a first feature, his proving ground for his directorial skill. In this debut, the tight, twisted neo-noir Following, Nolan exhibited the first traces of his special touch. The plot is convoluted, fraught with betrayal, and revealed in a succession of game-changing expositions. It's a seedy, non-linear drama with just enough of a psychological edge to demand interest in its characters. In Following, you can see the seed of Nolan's career, which is escalating to this day.
The initial premise of Following, its titular obsession, is that the main character (the Young Man) follows people around the city in order to research characters for his writing. On the streets of London, he has turned people-watching into voyeurism. When he meets Cobb, a young fellow Londoner, he discovers a kindred spirit, a man who burgles houses for the sake of getting inside his victims' lives and changing them. If the narrator is a pathological people-watcher, Cobb is a pathological rifler through peoples' bookshelves and DVD collections. His profession -- stealing and selling CD's -- is secondary to his mission, just as the main character's writing is secondary to his own obsession with people.
This plot thickens quickly with jarring changes in loyalty and intriguing treatments of perspective. Following is ostensibly told from the point of view of the main character, the nameless young man who narrates the story to a police officer. However, as the film goes on, we learn things in a different order, seeing certain scenes that are beyond the narrator's range of awareness, and grasping certain twists before the main character; this is especially true of the final betrayal, which we discover before the narrator could possibly know it.
Following is a film about digging into peoples' lives and getting to know them; interestingly, by the end, we know the least about Cobb, one of the three main characters. We get at least a reasonable picture of the main character, who gives us some fragments of his background, and we get glimpses into the life of his love interest. However, Cobb's story is always undermined by his enigmatic self-presentation. Even to the end of the movie, we aren't sure if he's a professional cat-burglar, a hit-man, a broker for illegal goods, or something else entirely. We just know he's the only guy who was able to keep track of the situation, when the pathways of loyalty and communication were shifting.
This lack of insight actually becomes a core concept in Following, which, for a movie about uncomfortable proximity and fixation, actually feels rather remote. The film starts with a montage of the Young Man following random pedestrians, and he explains why he does it, but on-screen, it's surprisingly mundane; if there's something about these people that continues to fascinate the Young Man, we the audience don't get access to it.
This remoteness could be construed as a weakness of the film, but it can also be argued as an ambiguous strength: in the end, Cobb shows the main character the danger of reaching too deeply into dark places, of getting too comfortable with your obsessions and fixations. For a character like the Young Man, who's not prepared to deal with true manipulation and betrayal, intimacy leads to vulnerability, and rather than discovering the truth about a few interesting people, he gets himself entangled in a web of lies that he ultimately can't escape; he digs himself his own rabbit hole, and he's left there.
Thus, one of the movements of the film becomes the move from scrupulous voyeurism to self-involved intimacy, and the danger of the predatory unknown when you try too hard to bring it to light. In fact, the last illuminating moment of the film is one of the most personal: the Young Man's confession to a police officer, his decision to finally come clean and straighten out the situation he's in. Unfortunately, this final revelation is also the final step into a trap that's been comprehensively set and baited.
INTIMATE MOMENT: Someone else's stuff