Tattoos & Totems

Part I: Following (1998)

Is out identity defined by our secrets?

“Everybody has a box.”


Bill has taken on a new hobby he calls “shadowing”; he follows people around and simply observes them, where they go, who they’re with. Everything about the lives of others intrigues him. He says that once you fix on someone in a crowd, they are no longer just part of a jumble, that they become an individual. We get the implication that he began shadowing people because he found others to be much more intriguing than himself. He isn’t particularly interesting, and the knowledge of that fact can be quite depressing. No career, no hobbies (other than creepily following strangers around), no girlfriend, no friends, family. But this lack of things and people in his life don’t necessarily bore him, it just makes the question of who he truly is that much more difficult to answer. He has no secrets, from himself or from anyone else, so he’s taken it upon himself to discover the secrets of others; although as soon as he does this, he becomes an interesting enough character to write a movie about – if he only knew.


The jumbled structure of the film almost gives the impression that Nolan rolled a pair of dice to decide how to order his story; he said he wanted the audience to feel as if they were watching a new scene every time one began, with only brief notes (think tattoos, if you’d like to skip ahead) about what we know so far. Each scene, then, plays out like a new person that we, the audience, is shadowing. Bill even changes his appearance at one point, and appears in half of the scenes with a bloodied nose and busted lip, so the casual viewer is sure to feel out of the loop at one point or another, which is one of the aspects inherent in being concerned with the lives of others. One of the reasons that Nolan’s films are so popular, in my opinion, is that he likes to let us discover what’s happening on our own, as opposed to beating us over the head with the information. He allows us an “ah ha” moment of discovery – the moments that his themes and ideas are trying to perpetuate – when we find out why he cut his hair or how he got the busted lip. Because of this, the film as a whole is a more engaging experience, again paralleling the inherent excitement in learning another’s secrets.

Bill soon shadows the wrong man, named Cobb, who realizes Bill is following him and introduces him to his (Cobb’s) own personal hobby of breaking into flats and gently disturbing the life of the tenants. Bill is instantly attracted to Cobb’s form of entertainment, and is surprised to find out how much Cobb can infer about a person simply by snooping around their apartment. Cobb even mentions “…breaking in, finding out who they are,” and says that if you move something or take it away, it forces them to think about how valuable it was, and to ponder the notion of their life without it. As he’s discussing this theory with Bill, he purposefully drops and breaks a wooden artist’s model – a symbol for the individual in its most basic form. He finds honor in what he’s doing, and considers himself somewhat of a modern-day Robin Hood, which Bill buys into immediately. After a few break-ins and close calls, Cobb begins nosing around more specifically through people’s flats for, he tells Bill, “a box.” Everybody has a box, a very blatant symbol of secrets, and is usually the most intriguing part of any household, at least to the two sociopaths poking around the place.

But all good things must come to an end, especially when those good things involve being a creepy asshole who doesn’t care about discovering himself, only about knowing the secrets of others. Cobb eventually sets up Bill, using another young lady as bait (whom he also manipulates for his own causes), getting Bill to mimic Cobb’s methods – essentially taking on his identity for him – and puts him in a situation where he’s robbing the house of a man who’s soon to be home. In a panic, Bill kills the man and goes back to tell Cobb and the woman only to find that Cobb has used both of them, and killed the woman, in order to trick Bill into killing a man and framing him into taking Cobb’s recent murder charge. “Cobb” has even taken the items that they burgled from other apartments and stashed them in a box (a box!) underneath Bill’s bed, which the police find and use as evidence that Bill had been the one doing all the recent break-ins, and had killed both the man in the apartment he was robbing as well as the woman who Cobb (his true identity revealed to be the associate of a gangster) murdered to keep quiet. As Bill is arrested, Cobb slips into the crowd, losing his individuality and becoming part of the jumble of blank and blurry faces known as “everyone else”. In essence, Cobb did with Bill’s freedom – and therefore his neglected right to discover who he is – what he had done with all the articles from their victim’s apartments: he removed it, thus forcing Bill to think about its value.

“Following” is where we begin to see Nolan’s vision of human beings as having an innate predilection for taking advantage of those who either aren’t looking for themselves because they are too caught up in the secrets of others or, in the case of his next (and brilliant, breakout) film, those who seem to have lost their way. However, the film will imply, those who have lost their way aren’t necessarily saints, either.

<- Previous • Part II: Memento ->