The stylish, low-budget Brit crime film Following opens in both familiar and very odd territory. Its protagonist, Bill (Jeremy Theobald), is one of the furtive outsiders Dostoevsky introduced to the world in Notes from the Underground. After one look at the dingy, disheveled Bill, you're not surprised to learn that he's a writer you just figure he's a writer of the Unabomber variety, a man who writes out of sheer alienation. But if Bill is a familiar type, he does have a unique way of expressing his weirdness. Not by writing. He taps away at an antique manual typewriter from time to time, but we never see what he produces. No, Bill expresses himself by following people.
He shadows them until he knows where they work, live and eat, and then he moves on. You might say Bill treats ordinary people as if they were celebrities. That's how lost he is.
Before long, however, one of Bill's targets turns the tables on him and confronts him in a doughnut shop. Cobb (Alex Haw) forces Bill to confess to a number of sins; being a "writer" is only one of them. Cobb seems Bill's opposite in every way. He's handsome, sharp, extremely self-confident. You feel that with his probing he's only picking the wings off the pathetic Bill and that the young Thatcherite will dispose of him with a final stinging question then disappear.
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But at this point the film springs its first trap. Cobb is not the dashing young options trader that he seems to be. Rather, he's something of a gentleman burglar. He breaks into flats not so much to rob as to invade a stranger's space. He takes things, of course. A thief does have to eat, after all. But he's more into psychological game-playing, into leaving his mark on the lives of strangers. In short, Cobb is the power version of Bill, who wants only to look.
Cobb seduces Bill into joining him in a robbery easily enough. As a writer, Bill can always claim he's just doing research into the criminal mind. They have a close call on their first break-in, but Cobb talks them out of trouble. After that, the work starts to look pretty simple.
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But in good noir fashion, with every step Bill takes in imitation of Cobb, the deeper he pushes into a labyrinth of deceit and violent crime. Here writer/director Christopher Nolan's storytelling calls attention to itself. The narrative is broken into fragments and reassembled so that you feel lost at the beginning of every scene. All is eventually made clear, and after three or four such jumps you learn to be patient and to wait to see why Bill looks battered in one scene but not another, or why he's lying on a rooftop, pulling a balled-up rubber glove out of his mouth.
The fracturing of the story line eventually becomes schematic enough to feel like a bit of a cheat. Are the events here interesting only because they're told out of order? To some extent that's true. In Bill, Nolan created a protagonist who is simply too pathetic to care much about. Not long after he meets Cobb, and after he begins an improbable fling with a tough-talking blonde (Lucy Russell), you're pretty sure something really bad will happen to Bill. And in fact you hope that it does.
But despite its dim bulb of a protagonist, the film is ultimately redeemed by two things: Nolan's haunting black-and-white cinematography (yes, he also filmed, edited and produced) and the charisma and dark good looks of Haw as Cobb. He's a very worthy villain, good at the gratuitously nasty touch. When he hands Bill a beer, he first gives it a good shake while the poor boob isn't looking, then smiles with only his eyes when the brew squirts out all over the loser.
Too bad he didn't face a hero who could actually push him a little. Most impressively, Haw is a professional architect, not an actor, and even after the festival circuit success of Following, he's pursuing a master's in architecture and not a Hollywood agent. What's this world coming to?