Following (1998)

Following is the type of low-budget film you watch, think is okay, and then forget about a few minutes after you watch it. Its staying power is very low, and the reason that it fails is largely because the story it wants to tell isn’t particularly interesting, but is told in a manner that makes it seem that way. Here is another non-linear film that seems more clever than it actually is.

We open with a man (Jeremy Theobald, whose character is credited as “The Young Man”) telling a story to an older man (John Nolan). He begins by telling us that he’s a wannabe writer, but he’s not a very good one, nor is he very dedicated to his craft. He decides that stalking people is much more fun than actually writing is, so that’s what he did. He came up with some rules, like “don’t follow the same person twice,” but as well all know, rules are made to be broken.

One day, he follows a man who comes to be known as Cobb (Alex Haw). Cobb catches him in the act, but instead of being angry with his stalker, he is intrigued. “Why are you stalking me? Do you have nothing better to do with your life?” Evidently not, and after having a cup of coffee together, Cobb reveals what he does for fun: He breaks into apartment suites and steals things from the people who own them. Being the curious man that our protagonist is, he accompanies Cobb on his next few thieving missions.

We come to find out that Cobb thinks he’s doing the owners of these items a favor. He takes something away from them, and it makes them ponder why they had that item in the first place, what it meant to them, and if they really wanted to replace it. He considers this to be beneficial, although I had to wonder if he’s ever been robbed. He also claims that people want their personal items, like photographs, to be seen, so he spreads them out around the floor so that the owner knows he’s taken a glance at them.

We flash forward and backward so many times that it’s easy to get disoriented. From what I can tell, there are three distinct mini-stories that are being told in Following. You can tell by the way The Young Man presents himself. In one, he has a beard and scruffy hair. In the second, he’s clean shaven and has had a haircut. In the third, he has a black eye. These stories all eventually connect to one another. It’s up to you to piece them together and get them to fit chronologically.

So, yes, it’s one of those films. When you’re trying to figure everything out, the film continues on, leaving you little room to breathe and think. When other films might pause, allowing you to pause and put all of the events into place, Following throws something else your way. It’s a relentlessly paced film, containing no filler and only playing for around 70 minutes. Thanks to its rapidity, I think it appears better than it is.

From what I’ve given you about the plot, you might not think that there will be a lot of surprises. There are. Following ends up being a surprise-a-minute film, with a lot of reveals coming from the use of flashbacks or flash-forwards. Who’s duping whom? This means you’ll likely miss some things on the first watch, and also that a second watch will be more enthralling. But after you figure everything out, you just might realize that the story is actually quite simple and that figuring everything out for yourself is actually more entertaining than what the film presents you with.

If we were presented with a straightforward narrative, Following probably wouldn’t be a success. It’s only because of the non-linear fashion that the plot is presented to us with that it works. Even then, it only works until the audience catches on and figures everything out. After that period of time, if begins to fall apart because the mystery is the only thing that keeps you watching. Or at least, that’s how it felt for me. But still, getting potentially two or three really engaging watches is better than a lot of films manage, so I suppose I should give credit where credit is due here.

Maybe if there were more captivating actors, Following wouldn’t rely almost solely on its somewhat unconventional plot structure (which, let’s be honest, isn’t that unconventional anymore). Everyone in this film is so bland. I understand that this was more or less a student film and that most of the people involved aren’t professional actors, but that isn’t going to matter when you watch it. You want to see people with more emotional range than a block of wood, especially when the role banks on the characters having emotions and acting like real people. This film doesn’t have that. You don’t even get the naturalist acting that you sometimes get with unprofessionals. It’s just one bland performance after another here.

Following is a film where the sole gimmick, the non-linear storytelling, makes it work. It stops working once you figure out how mundane the plot really is, but up until that point, you are thoroughly engaged. Granted, this movie became almost worthless after I figured the story out, as none of the other elements really work, but for a production with a budget of $6,000, you can’t expect much. And it will provide most audiences with at least two entertaining watches, and that’s pretty good in my books.

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