Debuts Blogathon: Christopher Nolan – Following (1998)

Debuts Blogathon

It’s Day 7 of the Debuts Blogathon hosted by myself and Chris at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop and next up we have Elroy from The Silver Screener‘s insightful take on Christopher Nolan’s low-budget neo-noir debut Following (1998). Elroy’s great looking site covers new releases in an intriguing way, while his Kubrick Awards dig deep into why cinematic ‘classics’ are so revered. As if that wasn’t enough, Elroy also does audio reviews on YouTube and SoundCloud. This guy’s got it covered!

Christopher Nolan

Following (1998)

Following is a beautiful film to watch. It unfortunately suffers from ‘amateur-itis’ in several ways, but had it been made by a Christopher Nolan 10 years into his professional career, I believe it would almost certainly be considered one of the great crime dramas of the modern era.

Following Poster As I said, it does suffer from ‘amateur-itis’ – a term I’ve made up to describe elements of a film that really tell us ‘this was made by someone early into his career’. There is a fight scene that isn’t the most amazingly shot sequence in film history. Some of the acting seriously lacks.

FollowingThe main character is referred to by Nolan as The Young Man, and played by Jeremy Theobald pretty well actually, although really there isn’t much to do emotionally – all the emotions are written into the dialogue. But the other two leads, Cobb and The Blonde, are not very well portrayed by their actors – Alex Haw (Cobb) seems to have difficulty making any of the swears he so often says seem needed, and Lucy Russell (The Blonde) just isn’t believable in the first place.

The sound mixing isn’t very good as well, which is somewhat surprising seeing as the editing of the shots is one of the better exponents of the film. A lot of the time it’s hard to hear what the actors are saying, yet I guess we can probably assume that Cobb’s swearing his head off.

FollowingBut put all of that aside and you have yourself with a pretty damn good film.

FollowingNolan’s direction early on, while the actual premise itself of ‘following’ was being explained, gives us a great connection to the action. We are viewing things from a faraway point, in the midst of cars blocking our view as they pass by, as people scatter the streets, like we’re the ones spying, like someone’s being watched, and that really taps into the tone of the film – black and white colours, two-faced people, two-faced situations. That’s one of the real feats of the film; how it establishes the mystery, the disguises these people represent.

The non-linear structure of the screenplay isn’t too dissimilar to that of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs in that it tosses back and forth between time periods, so the story isn’t told completely in a row. That technique, when harnessed properly, can be extremely effective. It is harnessed very properly in Following. It works so well because we feel confused in the beginning when the non-linear style kicks in, but by the end of the film we can understand why this is done – because the effect of mystery and deceit in confusing times is transferred perfectly from characters to viewer by Christopher Nolan.

FollowingFollowingBut I find that the film isn’t as similar to Reservoir Dogs as it is to one of my all-time favourite movies, The Usual Suspects. That story is also somewhat non-linear and told through flashbacks and a constant narrative from the protagonist, Verbal. That’s how the early goings work in Following – we hear The Young Man telling his story and giving background. But more than that is how the story unravels to such a point where it finally gets to the ending and the plot twist hits you over the head in a blaze of smoke and sudden surprise. That’s the best thing about The Usual Suspects and it’s also the best thing about Following. We know it’s perfectly choreographed because once you see the film and think back, you can visualise all the clues left, and say to yourself “wow, that’s damn smart”.

I have no doubt that this is Christopher Nolan’s love letter to noir films of the 50s; the Dial M for Murder’s, the Double Indemnity’s, the Sunset Boulevard’s. It was shot in lovely black and white; I was completely infatuated with its raw beauty, and even though I didn’t get the chance to watch it on a cinema screen, I could still feel the raw graininess of Nolan’s Following. That’s how lovely it was to watch. I could feel mystery in the air.

It was almost like it had put the thought in my mind that at any moment, I could turn around and find a completely unknown man following me.

Meanwhile, over at Terry Malloy’s Pigeon Coop, Kim from Tranquil Dreams provides a great piece on Hayao Miyazaki’s directorial debut The Castle of Cagliostro. Head over to Chris’s site now by clicking here.

Next on the slate I have the pleasure of introducing Mark from Marked Movies‘s take on Joel ‘Coen Brothers’ Coen’s Blood Simple. Hope you’re looking forward to this one as much as I am. See you then.

Great Films You Need To See – Dead Man’s Shoes (2004)

Although best known for introducing us to the memorable characters from This Is England, Shane Meadows has racked up a hugely impressive filmography – and none more memorable than his 2004 classic Dead Man’s Shoes.

Unlike those other stalwarts of British film Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, who go where the story takes them, Meadows has chosen to locate his features almost exclusively within spitting distance of his beloved Nottingham (with the exception of his 2008 film Somers Town); so much so that the Midlands and Meadows have virtually become conjoined twins.

Dead Man's Shoes

Shane Meadows’ powerful revenge drama Dead Man’s Shoes

Meadows may stick to where he knows best, but that doesn’t mean he sits back on his laurels as a filmmaker. And instead of playing it safe with the kind of kitchen sink drama that is a staple of the UK’s film output, he often goes looking across the Atlantic for his influences. His debut feature Small Time had Scorsese all over it, while 2002’s Once Upon A Time In The Midlands (his one failure) gave a nod and a wink to Sergio Leone’s love letters to the American West.

The same can certainly be said of Dead Man’s Shoes. However, the influence of America and American cinema hasn’t led to his aping it. Instead, those Midlands settings marry together with Meadows’ idiosyncratic style to create something utterly unique.

Dead Man’s Shoes begins with Smog’s Bill Callahan singing “I can’t be held responsible for the things I’ve seen” – a portentous line for what is to come. Squaddie Richard (Paddy Considine) walks across picturesque countryside to his hometown of Matlock in the Peak

District with his brother Anthony (Toby Kebbell) in tow. Home video footage is interspersed of the siblings to underline the bond between them.

The screen fades to black and Richard says: “God will forgive them. He will forgive them and allow them into heaven. I can’t live with that.” The ‘them’ he is referring to are a gang of low-level thugs and drug dealers who abused Anthony, who we discover has learning difficulties, while Richard was in the army.

(Paddy Considine) wreaks his revenge in Dead Man's Shoes

Richard (Paddy Considine) wreaks his revenge in Dead Man’s Shoes

Richard makes his presence known when he faces down one of the abusers, Herbie (Stuart Wolfenden), first in a pub and then outside a flat, where he turns up wearing a military gas mask, leads Herbie and his mates on a merry chase and steals the drugs that have been supplied by gang leader Sonny (ex-boxer Gary Stretch).

Sonny confronts Richard, who advises they leave town or suffer the consequences, pointing out that it’s now “beyond words”. When Sonny and co fail to heed Richard’s suggestion they discover just who it is they are dealing with when one of the gang is discovered bludgeoned to death by an axe and the words ‘one down’ written in his blood.

Sonny goes on the offensive and with his lackeys heads to the abandoned farm Richard and Anthony are staying at to shoot him. However, the plan drastically backfires and the terrified gang retreat.

When the remaining members arrive back at Sonny’s house they search the place expecting to find their tormentor there. But Richard is hiding and while they are upstairs he laces their kettle with the drugs he stole. A few hours later and the surviving trio are out of their minds and easy prey for Richard, who kills them one by one in an extremely disturbing scene.

There is one final member left though and Richard travels to a nearby town in search of Mark (Paul Hurtsfield), who has left his bad days behind him and now lives with a wife and children. When the horror-struck Mark learns of who is after him, he unburdens his soul to his wife, telling her of the final act of abuse inflicted on Anthony which led to him killing himself. As it transpires Richard has been alone the whole time.

Paddy Considine in Dead Man's Shoes

Paddy Considine in Dead Man’s Shoes

Richard takes Mark hostage and forces him to drive to the spot where Anthony died. However, instead of exacting his final revenge, Richard instead forces Mark to kill him, telling him that all he wants to do is lie with his brother.

The film that comes to mind most when analysing Dead Man’s Shoes is the deeply pessimistic 1973 western High Plains Drifter, wherein the revenge plot is suffused with the supernatural (I choose to believe the character of Anthony is a ghost rather than a figment of Richard’s broken mind).

The story doesn’t quite ring true when you really think about it (where are the police in all of this?) and it soon becomes obvious that none of them is any match for Richard. The camerawork is a little pedestrian at times, also.

However, the plus points of Dead Man’s Shoes far outweigh the negatives. The acting by a largely inexperienced cast is naturalistic, with Kebbell a standout in his feature debut. Portraying someone with learning difficulties can easily come across as broad and forced (Sean Penn in I Am Sam is a notable example), but Kebbell underplays the part, making Anthony a truly tragic figure.

This is Considine’s show, though and he stands head and shoulders above everyone else. Since making his debut in Meadows’ A Room For Romeo Brass in 1999, Considine has become one of this country’s finest actors (and one of its most promising directors following the acclaimed Tyrannosaur).

It’s a powerhouse performance and he is terrifying and sympathetic in equal measure. Considine does a mesmerising job playing a man racked with guilt because he wasn’t there to help his brother and consumed with a rage that is as frightening to him as it is overwhelming. As Sonny points out following their first encounter: “I looked him right in the eye and he ain’t the same guy that left.”

Much like he did in Small Time, Meadows paints the gang as somewhat comical in nature, be it their Three Stooges-esque larking about, or the fact they drive around in a knackered old Citroen 2CV.  However, the stakes facing them are far higher and this tone at times sits a little uncomfortably with the subject matter, especially during the protracted scene where Richard dispatches Sonny and the others in brutal fashion.

The effortlessly cool soundtrack, featuring the likes of Aphex Twin, Richard Hawley and Bonnie “Prince” Billy is pitch-perfect and complements Meadows’ atmospheric cinematography, most notably in the moments Richard is walking through the countryside or on the farm.

Right now Meadows seems content with exploring the lives of the characters from This Is England. However, one hopes he will soon explore new avenues as we need more films like Dead Man’s Shoes made in this country.