Welcome back to The Christopher Nolan Chronicle, today we are discussing the Pre-Batman Era of Nolan’s filmography. In the four-year span between and including 1998 and 2002, Christopher Nolan directed his first feature-length film, Following, the mind-bending mystery, Memento, and the psychological thriller, Insomnia. In an effort to ensure The Christopher Nolan Chronicle maintains its reputation as an unbiased publication, we have consulted the reviews of Dylan R., a film fan from New York City, as a benchmark against which to compare our own findings.
In pursuit of our quest to answer whether Nolan was better before or after he directed the Batman films, it only makes sense to start at the beginning. First up, Following.
Christopher Nolan’s Following follows Bill as he follows random people around London. Are you following? The film is shot in black and white on 16mm, which was the most expensive part of the film’s $6,000 USD budget. Coming in with a 69-minute runtime, the pacing in Following is deliberate and precise. Nolan wastes no time on overlong character backstory and nixes any setpieces that aren’t strictly necessary to tell the story he wants to tell. Despite that seemingly short runtime, the film makes room for not one, not two, but three plot twists, and none of them feel cheap or unearned.
Following is an impressive debut from Christopher Nolan, and a great example in creating something meaningful with practically zero budget. We see so many glimpses of what Nolan’s career would eventually grow to become: brisk pacing, darker tones, unique editing, and great attention to detail. Whereas other filmmakers would feel restraint with a budget like this, Nolan uses it to his advantage and the film has a very raw feel because of its few takes, natural costuming and set design, and imperfect sound mixing. It has its faults, and may even be the least memorable of Nolan’s large-scale body of work, but it is still something special and incredibly promising.
The Chronicle could not agree more with Dylan’s assessment of Nolan’s debut feature film, but would like to add nuance to one particular line Dylan mentions. Following may not be Nolan’s least memorable film for any inherent faults within the picture itself, but rather because it lacks the larger-than-life setpieces, dramatic reveals, and flourishes that would appear as soon as his next film, two years later, in Memento. Following is an innocuous picture that doesn’t stand out, not because it’s bad, but because it doesn’t resort to major theatrics to tell its story.
We rate it: 7.5 / 10 | Dylan Rates it: 7 / 10
In his next feature-length outing, Christopher Nolan takes on a mind-bending, time-bending mystery starring Guy Pearce as Leonard Shelby, a widower with a memory problem trying to track down his wife’s rapist and murderer. It’s not Amnesia, though, Leonard would like you to know. He can recall everything up to the event of his wife’s death, but cannot store new memories he has made since then. He knows what he has to do and why, but can’t remember how he got to where he is or where he’s going next. Memento tells one story in two halves, with alternating scenes taking place in alternating moments of Leonard’s chronology. The jarring nature of this storytelling serves its purpose, as Nolan confuses his audience just enough to disorient them much like Leonard’s disorientation, but not enough so that the picture is convoluted and unwatchable.
Memento is one of a kind. Nolan really perfected non-linear storytelling that doesn’t feel gimmicky, but instead effectively conveys the fragmented headspace of Guy Pearce’s character, constantly trying to put clues together to find answers in this never-ending spiral of unknowingness. Not only is it beautifully structured, but it has some deeply effective tragedy throughout. With more of a budget than his debut, Nolan showed just how powerful his artistic eye could be, with some stunning imagery and attention to detail throughout. Nolan would go for bigger spectacle later in his career, but Memento may impress me more because of how engrossing it is on its concept and narrative structure alone, not relying on a plethora of special effects to enhance it. I find myself even more engaged with every rewatch, discovering more and more little twists and tricks along the way. One of Nolan’s best.
We would like to echo Dylan’s assessment that Memento is particularly impressive for what Nolan was able to accomplish on a still-minimal budget (albeit larger than what he had for Following). Also, as Dylan mentions, there are few, if any, special effects present in this film, with Nolan relying solely on the strength of his narrative storytelling, deliberate editing, and intentional cinematography. He gives us just enough to be half a step ahead of Leonard, but not enough to see anything more coming.
We rate it: 9 / 10 | Dylan rates it: 10 / 10
In the last of the Pre-Batman Era of Christopher Nolan’s career, we examine Insomnia, a psychological crime thriller starring Al Pacino in one of the last fully-conscious performances he would give until 2019’s The Irishman. Insomnia is one of the few Nolan-directed pictures that was not, wholly or in part, written by himself and/or his brother Jonathan, and it does feel that way at times. Based on a Norwegian Nordic-noir of the same name, directed by Erik Skjoldbjærg, the dialogue is, at times, cliche for anyone familiar with the morally-ambiguous hard-boiled detective tropes, and Hillary Swank, playing one of only three living women in this film, is forgettable. That said, Al Pacino and Robin Williams chemistry (even in scenes where they do not appear on screen together) and the technical aspects of this film, like the cinematography and editing more than make up for generic character work and merely decent screenwriting.
I think Insomnia is definitely an underrated work in Nolan’s resume. It is his most straightforward piece, and perhaps his least “unique” on a creative scale—this could be due to its screenplay being the only one not written by Nolan himself—though I believe it’s well directed, and certainly well acted. Robin Williams is definitely the highlight, as I loved seeing him play something so far from his wheelhouse. The use of scenery and atmosphere is impressive, with some gorgeous cinematography capturing Alaska’s vast, foggy landscapes. Insomnia works well as a crime thriller, but even better as a character study, as the exploration into Al Pacino’s character’s psyche is rather fascinating, dealing with guilt, reputation, and secret-keeping in a very profound way. There’s nothing particularly new about Insomnia’s style or structure (compared to something like Memento), but that only brings more emphasis to Nolan’s abilities in other areas, as there truly is a multitude of strengths when it comes to his direction. Insomnia may not be one of Nolan’s upper-tier works, or his most memorable, but is still special in its own right, and still gives us one hell of a Nolan ending, thematic and resonant as expected.
We couldn’t have said it better ourselves. The Chronicle believes Insomnia‘s greatest strengths are its two male leads, Robin Williams and Al Pacino, and the cinematography only serves to emphasize the mental struggles these characters are facing. And, while we concede Hillary Swank’s character, Detective Ellie Burr, could have been more fleshed out, it is understandable that she is somewhat forgettable given that the story focuses on Pacino’s Detective Dormer hunting for Williams’s Walter Finch. As Dylan said, Insomnia is hardly Nolan’s most creative work, but it is, without a doubt, well-made and extremely well-performed.
We rate it: 8 / 10 | Dylan rates it: 8 / 10
That’s a Wrap!
This concludes the Pre-Batman Era of Christopher Nolan’s filmography. Three very distinct works, each showing off a few of the creative sensibilities Nolan harnesses as a director. In Following, we see what Nolan can do with a minimal budget and deliberate editing choices. In Memento, we learn more about Nolan’s fascination with character motivations and, no spoilers, ambiguous endings. And, in Insomnia, we see what Nolan can do with the financial support of a big studio budget, visionary cinematographers, and, most importantly, an extremely talented cast.
The average rating for the Pre-Batman Era stands at 8.16 / 10.
Stay tuned to the next issue of The Christopher Nolan Chronicle to find out what we think about the most infamous era of Nolan’s career: The Batman Era.
Randazzo, D. (2020 August 10). Nolanography: The Road to Tenet (?) #1 [Review of the movie Following, by director C. Nolan]. Retrieved from https://letterboxd.com/dylan_randazzo/film/following/1/
Randazzo, D. (2020 August 15). Nolanography: The Road to Tenet (?) #2 [Review of the movie Memento, by director C. Nolan]. Retrieved from https://letterboxd.com/dylan_randazzo/film/memento/1/
Randazzo, D. (2020 August 18). Nolanography: The Road to Tenet (?) #3 [Review of the movie Insomnia, by director C. Nolan]. Retrieved from https://letterboxd.com/dylan_randazzo/film/insomnia-2002/1/