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Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2001

In the footsteps of a master of deception


Rating: * * * *
Director: Christopher Nolan
Running time: 69 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

"Memento" has turned out to be the surprise hit of the year, an indie film noir that is so accomplished and clever and stylistically flawless that audiences generally can't believe that it's by a director they've never heard of before. Well, as is often the case with filmmakers who seem to come out of nowhere, Christopher Nolan does have a previous, largely unknown film to his credit, and -- no surprise -- it's also quite a stunner.

News photo
Lucy Russell and Jeremy Theobald in "Following"

Shot in 1999 (and only now receiving a Japan release in the wake of "Memento"), Nolan's actual debut, "Following," was a no-budget, black-and-white film noir, shot on weekends with a cast made up of Nolan's actor friends. But despite these limitations, Nolan proves that a good, tight script goes a long way. (Something that computer-graphics-addicted Hollywood directors should take to heart.) As he did so effectively in "Memento," Nolan fashions a fascinating puzzle, telling the story in flashback and cutting between timelines to maximize the suspense. Again, "Following" is a film to pay attention to.

The film starts with a troubled young guy named Bill (Jeremy Theobald) confessing a bad habit that seems to have landed him in a world of trouble. Bill wants to be a writer, and in his quest for material, he's taken to following people at random. Not exactly stalking, but -- as he puts it -- "you watch someone's behavior and it raises 100,000 questions."

Of course, some people are more intriguing than others, and Bill finds himself following some a bit too much. One day he's confronted in a cafe by one of his marks, a suave and businesslike young man named Cobb (Alex Haw), whose powers of observation are more highly developed than Bill's. You see, Cobb is a professional burglar. In what seems like an attempt to cover his own tracks by compromising Bill, Cobb persuades the young writer to accompany him on a break-in.

Cobb is a bit of a head case, less interested in the profit motive of theft than his chance to create havoc. "That's what it's about," he tells Bill. "Interrupting someone's life. You take it away to show them what they had." Cobb will do things like drop a pair of pilfered lace panties from one apartment in another flat inhabited by a couple, just for the sick pleasure of messing up their relationship.

Between Cobb's slick professionalism and his existential modus operandi, it doesn't take long for Bill to be seduced by the thief's lifestyle. With Cobb as his mentor, Bill engages in more thefts. He becomes fixated on one particular target, an icy blonde (Lucy Russell) who turns out to have a violent gangster boyfriend. Bill tails her to a club and begins an affair, only to have the blonde ask him to burgle her boyfriend's safe, where some compromising photos of her are stored. Thus begins a multileveled game of manipulation . . .

In many ways, "Following" seems like a trial run for "Memento," with Nolan floating all the techniques and tricks that would be polished to perfection in his second film. Here, his most effective device is a kind of cinematic premonition, casting shadows of what's coming and making us wonder when and why. A brief glimpse of Bill, early on, with his face badly bruised, dressed in a suit like Cobb's, and concealing a hammer under his coat raises a lot of questions -- questions that linger in the mind as we return to the main narrative flow. It's only as the film nears its conclusion that all these little jigsaw pieces start to lock together and reveal the big picture, which is when -- like "Memento" -- you want to go back and watch it all from the beginning again.

Nolan's success is two-fold: As a writer, he understands the benefits of manipulating time, revealing a little here, hiding a little there, and the delicate balance required. As a filmmaker -- and he acted as cameraman here as well -- he understands how a "look" is essential to helping viewers keep the separate timelines straight, and how to shoot scenes so that the important details linger.

Think of Carrie-Anne Moss removing all the pens from her apartment in "Memento," or the slight stain on the suit that Guy Pearce is wearing. In "Following," Nolan pulls similar tricks with an earring, a credit card and that hammer -- watch for them.

Actually, with its faux-vintage black-and-white look, "Following" seems even more like classic film noir than "Memento." But despite the archetypes here -- a hero way out of his depth and besotted by attraction, and a blonde who could have dropped in from a Hitchcock flick -- Nolan is covering new ground, and not just stylistically.

"Following" poses a delicious irony for us to ponder: The contract we enter into with all good cinema -- and writing, which is Bill's dilemma here -- is that through close and careful observation, we can learn something of human nature. And yet, acting offers another concept: that through craft, an actor can make you believe whatever he wants you to about his essential "nature." Like all good noir directors, Nolan is more interested in the latter. Deception has rarely been so delicious.

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