Appropriately, the first shot in Christopher Nolan’s feature debut is of a wooden box full of clues.
Nolan would go on to make puzzle-box movies of the highest order. Even his World War II drama Dunkirk—which doesn’t have the narrative and thematic convolutions of Memento, The Prestige, and Inception—is something of a structural puzzle, given its gradual constriction of space and time. Sitting down for a Nolan movie is akin to opening a box and trying to figure out how the various items inside coalesce into a surprisingly coherent narrative.
In Following, the box we see in the opening scene is being rifled through by Bill (Jeremy Theobald), the main character. A grungy, unemployed writer desperate for material, Bill has fallen in with Cobb (Alex Haw), a debonair house burglar who steals from people partly to make money and partly to mess with their heads. (“You take it away to show them what they had,” he explains.) Cobb describes the box they come across, which mostly holds personal mementos, as an “unconscious collection.” Dreamy and disconnected from conventional linearity, each of Nolan’s films could be described the same way.
Indeed, it doesn’t take long for Following to divide into various timelines, keeping us on our toes. As such, the movie is expertly edited (by Nolan and Gareth Heal), including a nice early cut, while Bill is talking about his habit of following strangers, that briskly transitions from a crowd scene to a medium shot of a stranger staring back at him. Add strikingly noirish, black-and-white cinematography (also by Nolan) and it’s no wonder Following put him on the map as a talent to watch.
The film is also an early indication that Nolan could, at times, be too clever for his own good. Following has not only one, but two, “gotcha” plot twists, which might be one too many. And its characters—despite compelling turns by Theobald and Haw—register more as ideas than people: the Writer seeking inspiration; the Thief probing minds. They’re intriguing as puzzle pieces, even if they never fully come to life.