Following Nolan: The Early Years

Dept. of Narrative and Nolan


In anticipation of the final release date for Christopher Nolan’s Tenet we’re taking a look back at the filmmakers’ past movies. First up, Iain explores time, memory, and story with Nolan’s first three full length features; Following, Memento, and Insomnia.

Christopher Nolan has come to embody smart film-making on a scale many thought impossible in the modern, blockbuster age (despite what Uma might say about Interstellar).

Revisiting his first few films now, feels somewhat like archaeology. Will I uncover heretofore undiscovered links to his later works? Is he a filmmaker that discards an idea or a style once he’s done with it? 


I had assumed the former, but rewatching Memento and Insomnia, and watching Following, for the first time, I was shocked at just how many thematic, and stylistic, threads weave their way though just these three films.

What struck me first was, that at this stage in his career, Nolan already seemed bored with the concept of a straight crime thriller, or film noir. Each film used those genres as a base, but Nolan added so much more.

Black & White & Noir

In 1998’s black and white Following,  “The Young Man” , played by Jeremy Theobald, falls in with stylish/unconventional burglar Cobb, before involving himself in a plot to save a femme fatale from a nasty mobster. Rather than just focus on bog standard criminals, “The Young Man” falls into crime through an obsession with the items he steals. Cobb is a suave confidence man with the bullet proof assurance to bluff his way past a flat’s owner when discovered mid burgle. There’s a damsel in distress, well, let’s say she is in some distress, but not from who you think, nor for the reasons you, nor the young man, assume.

2000’s Memento, whose incredibly slick, filmed-in-reverse opening shot of a gun flying into Guy Pearce’s hand, feels like a proof of concept for what we’ve seen of TENET so far. That movie features multiple, mini-noir detective stories, told though the medium of Leonard Shelby’s short bursts of purpose before his “anterograde amnesia” kicks in, and he once again loses the memory of the past couple of minutes.


Insomnia from 2002 is, compared to Memento, a relatively run of the mill, small town murder thriller. One that’s given heightened tension thanks to the never ending daylight of its Alaskan setting. The unique selling point might not be as showy as Memento’s cut up time structure, but the night time sun, and its effect on Detective Will Dormer, shining a light on the darkest parts of his past, still make it stand out from the crowd.

Apart from natty suits (“The Young Man” adopts a new persona along with a suit, Leonard’s “acquired” suit gives him a purpose and stature he lacks normally, and Nolan himself seems to think casual wear is a two piece suit), the significance we place in objects, and our perception of time, the biggest thread I found running through all three films is the act of storytelling itself.

Remember Sammy Jankis

Nolan isn’t so crass as to craft a meta-fictional tale about storytelling or storytellers. No, instead, in each film, the protagonists think that they are telling one story, a story where they are the hero, when in fact, they are completely mistaken, or they have been manipulated into taking on a prescribed role in someone else’s tale.

Playing around with time (another Nolan signature), Following starts with “The Young Man” relating his story to an unknown listener. How, after struggling for inspiration, he starts following random people on the street. Nothing creepy, just observation. After following a man called Cobb too many times, he’s confronted, and Cobb reveals he is a rather artful burglar. Accompanying Cobb as an observer on his burglaries, The Young Man becomes enamoured with one of Cobb’s victims, “The Blonde” (Lucy Russell). After reinventing himself with some of his ill gotten gains, The Young Man casts himself in the role of suitor to the blonde before moving on to the role of white knight, to her damsel in distress.

Only at the end of the tale does he realise he’s been played. Slotted into an allotted role in Cobb’s plan, trapped forever in that character now, thanks to his own actions and blindness.

Cobb? Now Why Is That Name So Familiar?

To cope with the fact he can’t form new memories Memento’s Leonard builds narratives for himself to cope. Losing all sense of time and place every couple of minutes, Leonard observes the world around him, before finding a role for himself to play, in an act of improvisational storytelling.
He’s always pursuing the mysterious John G., always seeking revenge on his wife’s murderer, and the cause of his condition. The rest of the details just fall into place.

Unfortunately, he falls prey to, well, almost everyone. From Burt, the manger at The Discount Inn who rents him multiple rooms, to Carrie Ann Moss’s Natalie, who abuses his amnesia to provoke him into hitting her and then, after he “resets,” allows him to believe he is her would be saviour.

Even the always amazing “Joey Pants” (Joe Pantoliano) as Teddy, is just another narrator. Setting up one detective mystery after another for Leonard to solve. He’s already solved his wife’s murder, he just doesn’t remember doing it. 

Don’t Believe His Lies

At one point, Teddy tells Leonard, “You’re not a killer, that’s why you’re so good at it.” Leonard can never see himself in that role. He’s physically incapable of seeing himself in any role other than crusading widower, even after his crusade is long over.

With Insomnia, it was perhaps Nolan himself who found himself trapped in someone else’s story, adapting Erik Skjoldbjærg  & Nikolaj Frobenius’ Norwegian original into English. Al Pacino’s Detective Will Dormer is also a prisoner of the stories he tells himself.

His reputation as a detective beyond reproach becomes an anchor around his neck after, during a child murder case, he plants evidence in a moment of weakness. Every moment sleep eludes him, he’s haunted by all the cases that could be reopened, the stories that could be retold, and the criminals that could be freed, if doubt was cast upon them. If that one mistake, that one failing, came to light.

Small Things, Remember?

That fear drives him to conspire with the local author Walter Finch (an incredibly creepy turn by the late Robin Williams), as the pair craft a new narrative to absolve Finch of his role in Kay Connell’s murder, and Dormer of his part in the accidental shooting of his partner Hap (Martin Donovan). A partner who would have had an opportunity to unravel Will’s story of himself. The fear of just the suspicion he killed Hap on purpose, driving him into a darker role that he could ever see for himself.

While Dormer redeems himself somewhat by the end, it’s mostly because he’s driven to it by Finch. Finch tries to take too much control over the narrative. A hack novelist, he starts crafting a “story,” framing Kay’s boyfriend Randy (Jonathan Jackson) as her murderer, repeatedly boasting he can write a far better story to fool the local cops.


Thankfully Will repents in time to save local cop Ellie Burr (Hilary Swank),  but her role raises another, less welcome commonality between Nolan’s first three features. The role of women in his stories.

While by no means a condemnation, it is interesting that all three films fail the Bechdel Test.

Following stars only a single actress (blame the low budget for that one). Memento features three speaking women’s roles, but they never meet anyone but Leonard. Insomnia drops back to two speaking roles for Swank and Maura Tierney, but again they never even share a scene.

You and Me…Always… and Forever…

In these stories Nolan seems far more interested in the stories of pairs of men and investigating the power differential between them. “The Young Man” and Cobb; Leonard and Teddy; Will and Finch. These are the axes  around which these films revolve.

It’s a theme that resurfaces with Cobb and Arthur (Inception), Bruce Wayne and Lucius Fox /Alfred (The Dark Knight Trilogy).

The theme of storytelling also recurs. The Dark Knight Trilogy sees Bruce Wayne (and Nolan) embark on myth-making on an epic scale. Wayne in crafting a story that will inspire Gotham to greatness, Nolan reinventing a comic book narrative for the modern age. Inception features a team trying to get someone to tell themselves a story, that they’ll believe in their own mind. Those however are stories for another day, for another author. 

In a final act of dramatic irony it seems Nolan might have foreshadowed his own part in the tales of The Dark Knight, way back in 1998. With a very interesting detail on a door in his first feature film.

Now… where was I?

Following, Memento, and Insomnia are currently unavailable on any streaming service in Malaysia, unfortunately.  

Tenet lands in Malaysian cinemas on August 26th, 2020.

Irish Film lover lost in Malaysia. Co-host of Malaysia's longest running podcast (movie related or otherwise ) McYapandFries and frequent cryer in movies. Ask me about "The Ice Pirates"

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