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Friday, January 18, 2013

First of Fourteen: Following

This series is dedicated to the viewing of first films by fourteen different directors of my choosing. The purpose being a retrospective look back at each film and where it stands in their overall canon and how it may have shaped each director's style in subsequent years. Each director chosen is currently active, and has helmed at least five films.

Of any Hollywood filmmaker working today, there's none whose work I anticipate more than Christopher Nolan. My interest in his work goes far beyond the typical Batman fanboyisms. His second film, Memento was the first DVD I ever owned, given to me by my father when I was in high school with the recommendation of "you gotta see this". Since then, I've never missed one of his films in the theater. Both he and Paul Thomas Anderson are probably the only two directors that I can think of that I will go see their films on opening night sight unseen. Nolan, while often compared to Stanley Kubrick incorrectly, operates more in line with the aesthetic of early Ridley Scott with a dash of the big ideas prevalent in the films of Fritz Lang. I stand by the idea that Memento, The Dark Knight, and Inception are tremendous films and amongst the best released in their respective years. It's a shame then, that I must admit that Following is simply not very good.

On paper, the ideas of Following are intriguing. A young unnamed protagonist (credited as The Young Man, and played by Jeremy Theobald) is undergoing questioning and acting as the narrator for this particular tale. Prior to his incarceration, he was a writer that follows random people "but never for too long, and never follow women into dark alleys" so go his rules, observing what they do for some unnamed purpose. We're left to assume that its to aid in his writing, or give him inspiration, but this isn't explicitly spelled out during the running time. All we know is, it's a compulsion he has. This protagonist ends up following the wrong person in Cobb (Alex Haw), who confronts him in the diner he was followed into. It turns out Cobb is a burglar, and he ropes our protagonist into his schemes, which are deeper than just smashing and grabbing. As TYM (as he'll be referred to from here on out) and Cobb break into a young woman's house, TYM becomes interested in the victim (Lucy Russell) after seeing her picture and begins to seek her out. The seeds of TYM's undoing begin here.

It sounds like an interesting plot on the surface, the sort of low-key think piece that I've wanted to see Nolan make in his most recent years of blockbuster filmmaking. The problem is that the film simply doesn't come together well, even worse so, it really drags. At the end of the film's 70 minute running time, all I could think was just how long it felt. This comes down to a combination of problems, perhaps most notably the performances. It's very difficult to convey even the most intelligent of scripts if the actors portraying it aren't up to the task. The cast is clearly a group of non-pros, which even then isn't a damning indictment, but these particular actors simply cannot carry any of the dramatic heft that Nolan's script requires. This is particularly troubling with Theobald, who is basically a blank cipher throughout the proceedings. His line readings simply come across as nothing but emotionless oratory most of the time. Haw fares somewhat better, though his character is probably the most dynamic of the entire film, particularly as the third act twist hinges on the believability of his antagonism. There's a bit of snobbery and gentleman thief in his performance that's suitable, and while doesn't outright save the film, does at least breathe a little more life into it. Russell is forgettable throughout. Her attempts at playing the Femme Fatale archetype simply has no weight to it. The scenes in which she shares with Theobald are when the film is at its worst. You ever try to listen to someone's really boring conversation, where neither party seems terribly interested in what the other has to say? That makes up every interaction between the two, without even a shred of the romantic chemistry that the script aims for.

In terms of a net positive, I consider the concept of Cobb's line of work to be interesting. Cobb seeks to distort his victims lives, and make them value what they once had by losing it; one example being planting a pair of women's underwear in the bag of the male end of a married couple he chooses for his particular bit of crime. He works to make sure the burglarized really that they have been messed with. He's the kind of guy who takes one earring out of set and hides it somewhere else in the house. He has rules, but they're based around generally disorganized chaos. In an odd way, he's almost a Heath Ledger Joker-precursor in a smaller form concept and without much or any of the charisma. The concept is there though, and its strong enough that it certainly brings itself to the forefront of the film.

Insofar as plot breakdowns and individual acts, the film has a non-linear breakdown which until recently was a stock in trade of Nolan's film making style. When watching Following, viewers are held subject to basically what are flash-forwards and a few different cuts that at the very least build some form of intrigue. For example, after an introductory scene of the general concept of TYM's compulsion, we flash forward to him lying on the ground with shorter hair, and beaten up pretty solidly. This sort of sleight of hand occurs a number of times throughout the film, including one flashback when the end twist is revealed. This tool works well enough on its outset to keep you engaged enough to wonder how A eventually gets to C. Yet, once examined, while the technique is admirable and a nice blue-print for where Nolan's style would quickly evolve; the end point, once you get there isn't terribly satisfying. In contrast, his follow-up film, Memento is much more successful in this regard for many reasons. Memento reuses the exact same three character archetypes of Following, the (literal) blank slate protagonist, the shady antagonist, and femme fatale, but in casting much better performers with a more intriguing concept that makes the narrative trickery an essential part of the experience, it would be a stretch to call Memento, "Following done right".

Following was shot on a shoe-string budget, and looks every bit of it. While we were watching the film, I began to notice just how cheap some of the shots actually appeared. While the black and white stock seemed an aesthetic choice for the neo-noir feel Nolan was hoping to cultivate with the film,
the Blu-ray quality highlights just how poor quality a camera Nolan and crew were using. I can't hold that against a first time film-maker, as a matter of fact, it actually speaks well of the already growing craft that Nolan was able to find effective ways to hide the budgeting limitations, shooting only during the day to make up for the lack of artificial lighting being another example. It's actually fascinating to think that Nolan was able to jump from this film and make a rather meteoric leap-forward with his subsequent, both from a craft and performance standpoint.

Following is one these films, like Bottle Rocket, that is held in higher regard because of the work that the director would go on to do. It's puzzle box nature has moments of interest, but it really is nothing more than a low budget run through of what Nolan would eventually be able to perfect as soon as his very next film. I'm certainly grateful that producers saw something of promise in Nolan's general aesthetic and concepts which are strong enough, even if the execution is not. Following is certainly an inauspicious start, and I doubt any rewatch will change my opinion about the film, there just isn't enough there beyond some good ideas. Following is all the evidence you need that good actors are still a requirement for satisfying film-making, no matter how engaging the premise.

Were I to grade this film, it would get a C from me at best.

Next up on First of Fourteen: I'll be looking at Danny Boyle's debut "Shallow Grave" and then Paul Thomas Anderson's "Hard Eight/Sydney".
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