You might want to take along a bridgetable and a pitcher of lemonade when you go see Following. It’s a film that offers more pleasure as a jigsaw puzzle than it does as a movie.
Bill (Jeremy Theobald) is a would-be writer whose malaise manifests itself as a compulsion to follow complete strangers as they make their daily rounds. When one of his targets, a suave, sharply dressed man named Cobb (Alex Haw), catches him at his game, Bill is intrigued to learn that Cobb is a burglar with some strange ideas about his trade: he thinks he’s doing his victims an existential service by robbing them. Bill begins escorting Cobb on his capers (some of the most slackly filmed crimes ever captured on film), and even starts dating one of their victims. The story eventually hinges on a string of seemingly insignificant and unrelated events that turn out to have unforeseeable ominous consequences.
The debut feature of British writer-director Christopher Nolan, Following is one of those neo-noirs like Shallow Grave that depend on quirky directorial effects and unearned cynicism to score its points. Made on the cheap, it’s a ramshackle doghouse of a movie whose parts have been stripped from sturdier structures. Body Heat, in particular, must have a gaping hole in its side – Nolan not only re-tailors its ending to suit his own purposes, he outright steals the face-slapping episode in the bar. Following is unimaginatively shot (in grainy black and white), and since a key element in the movie is the supposedly unique personality of the victims’ flats, it’s dismaying that every setting in the film – be it townhouse, barroom, or fire escape – has exactly the same atmosphere.
Following’s central gimmick – a liberal use of flashbacks and flash-forwards – works to keep us off balance. At different points we’re forced to guess how Bill will eventually come to be lying on the ground, blowing a surgical glove out of his mouth, finger by finger; and in order to keep up with the plot, we have to make ourselves look past a ghastly black eye which he sports in intermittent scenes. But these time-jumps only arouse suspicion that Nolan didn’t know how to make an interesting picture without them. He seems to have lost all touch with his material the second he conceived it, so that the film abounds in unmotivated actions and missed opportunities. When Bill is following Cobb at the beginning, why don’t we see Cobb mysteriously entering a series of odd houses? (The views of him we do get wouldn’t make us follow him for half a block.) Why aren’t the scenes of Bill succumbing to Cobb’s allure fleshed out? What’s the point of the earring that Bill hides in the piano bench in one of the victims’ houses?
It’s also no help that Nolan decided to fill his perfect nobody characters with perfect nobody actors. Haw, with his granitic features and stiff manner, tries in vain to appear worldly and sleek. (Cobb has to be compelling for the movie to work.) And Theobald, who looks like what Steve Buscemi might look like if Buscemi were an earthling, simply isn’t expressive enough to hold the screen. Except for one brief shot of him sitting frazzled in front of his typewriter, he barely registers at all. Only Lucy Russell, as the woman who gets caught up in the men’s machinations, turns in a flesh-and-blood performance.
Following’s only virtue is its brevity. It’s smart enough to stop after 70 minutes – only slightly longer than a single episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, a TV series that the film recalls with its thumbnail exposition and O. Henry-gone-bad ending. It’s just too bad that what could have been an acidic little ode to the art of manipulation is content to offer up nothing more than some recycled date-movie nihilism.
– Tom Block