A fairly clever neo-noir exercise, Christopher Nolan's debut feature is both distinguished - as a Brit production - and compromised by its very Amerindie feel. Low-budget, B&W 16mm format lends a gritty edge that isn't quite justified by limited character depths, nor by a quite engaging, if imperfectly realized, suspense story that might work better in a more commercial framework.

A fairly clever neo-noir exercise, Christopher Nolan’s debut feature is both distinguished – as a Brit production – and compromised by its very Amerindie feel. Low-budget, B&W 16mm format lends a gritty edge that isn’t quite justified by limited character depths, nor by a quite engaging, if imperfectly realized, suspense story that might work better in a more commercial framework. Not quite punchy (and barely long) enough for theatrical play, it’s good fest and calling-card fare.

Protag Bill (Jeremy Theobald) – closing credits spell out his genre-archetypical nature as just “The Young Man” – is a 30-ish would-be writer “between jobs,” living in a student-type hovel. For lack of any prospects or better ideas, he begins “shadowing” complete strangers around London, allegedly to “gather material for my characters.” In actuality, it’s simple, and fast-addictive, voyeurism.

Bill soon gets into trouble when he violates his “cardinal rule” never to never follow the same person twice. Dapper-looking Cobb (Alex Haw) duly notes his tailgater, and confronts the suddenly humiliated Bill. Turns out, however, that Cobb is “like you, interested in people” – he breaks into strangers’ apartments, as much to poke around their personal effects and upset their complacency as to burgle for cash. Though queasy, Bill can’t resist this new, heightened form of spying.

Meanwhile, pic keeps flashing forward, revealing certain consequences (a police interrogation, a badly beaten Bill, his romance with a latter-day gangster’s moll) well before we glean what instigated them. As Bill gets in deeper, events accelerate. He’s led to rob a safe for aforementioned blonde (Lucy Russell), but that ends disastrously, and she proves complicit in an elaborate ruse in which Bill won’t be the sole victim.

Climactic triple-cross is a satisfying payoff, though scenarist-helmer Nolan doesn’t really sock across any possible point of emphasis – black humor is soft-pedaled, suspense just middling, and the character writing keeps classic fall guy Bill a bit too blank-slate to incur much sympathy. Nor does the tricky structure unfold as ingeniously as it might. Result is entertaining, but material doesn’t develop the full, edgy potential that similar paranoid-triangle efforts like “Shallow Grave” or “The Last Seduction” realized.

Given clearly modest resources, perfs and tech package are polished. If the I-made-this-feature-for-next-to-nothing story isn’t already too old-hat, Nolan certainly merits applause for creating a decent little debut on a $ 6,000 budget , shooting exclusively on weekends.

Following

British

Production

A Christopher Nolan production. Produced by Nolan, Jeremy Theobald, Emma Thomas. Directed, written by Christopher Nolan.

Crew

Camera (B&W, 16mm), Nolan; lighting, Barbara Stepansky, Ivan Cornell; editors, Gareth Heal, Nolan; music, David Julyan; art director, Tristan Martin; sound, Cornell, David Lloyd, Julyan, James Wheeler. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, April 27, 1998. Running time: 69 MIN.

With

The Young Man - Jeremy Theobald
Cobb - Alex Haw
The Blonde - Lucy Russell
The Policeman - John Nolan
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