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What to Watch This Weekend: Christopher Nolan’s ‘Following’

A dark directorial debut from the master of mind-bending noir.

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Welcome to Watch This Weekend, where every Friday, Darian Lusk, comedian and writer living large in Brooklyn—will gently recommend something to stream, play or listen to. Follow him on Twitter @eatpraylusk to send suggestions for future installments.

Are you a Christopher Nolan guy? A “Dunkirk in IMAX twice,” “ranked the Dark Knight trilogy in a Google doc” (Batman Begins — so underrated!), “re-edited Memento in chronological order to see if it’s better” guy? Or, do you find his work way too grandiose, mainly enjoying Dunkirk for Harry Styles (let’s talk later)?

If you’re in either camp — both of which definitely, unironically do exist — I’d like to humbly present your movie for the weekend.

Following (1998) is a highly binge-able, impressively short (70 minutes — quicker than a Black Mirror ep.!) neo-noir that threw the ambitious English director on the map. Fans can witness the filmmaking techniques he will soon become renowned for, and skeptics may be convinced the auteur doesn’t need a big budget to make a big impact.

The compact thriller — available to rent on iTunes and Amazon but also (cough, cough) on YouTube, along with the subhead: “Nolan’s First Piece of Art.” (yes!) — centers on a character credited as The Young Man (Jeremy Theobald), an aimless struggling writer in London who, for inspiration, tails strangers in public. It’s not sexual (I mean, it’s not not sexual) but more about studying random people from afar. Of course, they’ll soon become not so random.

The Young Man breaks his cardinal rule, “don’t the same person twice” — a main character having a set of rules; classic Nolan. When he does, he is confronted by his target, the dapper Cobb (Alex Haw) — also…sound familiar? Coincidentally, Cobb has a similar obsession with learning about strangers. Except, he likes to do so by breaking into their apartments.

 

Cobb takes the The Young Man on a burglary ride along, and they have a bit of a bromance. For him, the rush comes from the idea of disruption. “Everyone has a box,” Cobb tells him, speaking about the collection of revealing items people tend to keep. By taking a few keepsakes and dumping the rest out for the homeowners to see, he hopes his victims will no longer take their lives for granted. A little clichéd, but I can dig it. The theme of memories and personal objects as MacGuffins; another Nolan joint.

Then, The Young Man develops an interest in a woman they burglarize, and things start to get complicated. And a little confusing. This is Christopher Nolan after all.

Following is a twisty, understated, masterful noir. Like many of the director’s later films, it employs a soundtrack of ticking clock noises, is presented non-chronologically and challenges the viewer to use these stolen objects (an earring, a photograph) or the main character’s haircut (a big improvement!) to piece together the truth. That is, until the satisfying twist ending.

At 28 years old, Nolan wrote, produced and directed Following for a mere $6,000 (that’s five Clerks!) while balancing a day job as a corporate video editor. According to a Vice interview from 2014, he stretched the dollar in a few nifty ways. He heavily rehearsed every take so he only needed to film each once or twice, mainly used natural light instead of professional lighting and employed his friends instead of professional actors. He then proceeded to invest most of the budget into 16mm film stock.

These cutbacks only add to the aesthetic of the film. In stunning B&W, the streets and homes of London come to life with daytime light that fills the frame, while seedy nightclubs take on a very real darkness that 16mm film brings out deliciously. This contrast is Hitchcock to the max (also the name of my one-member college film society.)

By using unknown actors, you feel like you’re watching real people; a voyeur to the main characters who are voyeurs themselves. Because the film is only 70 minutes long, each line feels essential as the plot moves swiftly in that exciting, directorial debut way. And since there are only three characters, doing some legwork to decipher the time jumps doesn’t feel overwhelming, like Inception, but fun! Like your…second viewing of Inception!

Not only do all these creative necessities make the film feel like the best student film you’ve ever seen but it may be the strongest case for Nolan as a director. With such a small budget (his second film, Memento, cost 9 mil., F.Y.I.), it proves he has a toolbox that doesn’t necessitate insane set pieces, way-too-loud Hans Zimmer organ and general grandioseness. It’s something, fan or not, to appreciate.

Also Following was shot only on Saturdays, because everyone in the film had day jobs. This doesn’t add anything artistically but it is a fun fact.

Other Great Things To Stream This Weekend:

FX: The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (Added Jan. 17)

the second, very buzzy, installment of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story saga hit the small screen this Wednesday. Centering around the infamous murder of the fashion icon, but more-so around his murderer (a career-making performance form Darren Criss) — this is a sinister, highly watchable offering.

Netflix: My Next Guest Needs No Introduction (Added Jan. 12)

 

 David Letterman is back from retirement (full beard!) with a new Netflix talk show. He brings on Barack Obama in the first episode, which is now available on the streaming platform. With in-depth interviews, field segments and a more serious tone, My Next Guest is a great turn for the TV legend and we are glad he’s back.

Netflix: The Polka King (Added Jan. 12)

Jack Black hams it up in the true story of a Polka singer who was imprisoned in 2004 for running a Ponzi scheme. Jenny Slate and Jason Schwartzman co-star in the quirky, Scorsese-style rise-and-fall comedy.