IT'S A COMMON WAY FOR WRITERS TO PASS THE time: Spot a face in the crowd and draft a story to go with it. Sketch in the person's background, create an occupation, map out his or her day's itinerary. The whole process can unfold in the time it takes to bite, chew and swallow the corner of a sandwich. Bill, the lead character in British director Christopher Nolan's smartly gnarled, '90s-noir Following, takes the game a step further. A struggling writer, he picks random strangers to follow throughout the day, piecing together their individual stories from whatever he observes. It's a kind of inverse intimacy: safe, superficial, one-sided. But hostility floats on the margins. There's no risk of his voyeuristic narratives' being contradicted, since he alone determines the weight and meaning of all that he sees. In sum, he's the writer as both God and vampire — consuming, contextualizing and interpreting without the corrupting effects of the other's feedback.

This benign veneer is stripped away when Bill (Jeremy Theobald) meets Cobb (Alex Haw), a nattily dressed man Bill shadows into a diner, only to have the watcher become the watched. Cobb, it turns out, spends his days breaking into people's homes — not for the bounty, but to upset the rhythms of their existence. Although he makes off with valuables, his main goal lies in “interrupting someone's life, [to] make them see what they took for granted.” To that end, when he breaks into a couple's apartment, he leaves behind a pair of women's panties, chuckling that the man will have a lot of explaining to do; he justifies the havoc he's wreaking by saying it will make the couple examine their life together more closely. Cobb pulls Bill into his world of break-ins, fencing and deciphering, much like a guru tutoring a disciple. He schools Bill in the fine art of what to take, what to leave behind and, most important, how to read the lives of those whose homes they invade.

In one of the film's cleverest setups, Cobb allows Bill to scout a home for the two to burgle. Once inside, it becomes clear — though Cobb seems not to notice — that the flat is Bill's. As Cobb sniffs dismissively at the meager offerings, it's obvious that his protégé is serving up artifacts of his own life, in effect asking his teacher, “Who am I? What is my life worth?” When he offers up his music collection for inspection, saying that it must surely be a sign of good taste, Cobb simply shrugs, “To each his own.”

Once Bill is completely under Cobb's sway, the film veers unconventionally into conventional noir territory. A femme fatale (Lucy Russell) with a vicious gangster boyfriend enters the picture, begging Bill for help in making her escape from the thug. As her relationship with Bill evolves, it slowly becomes clear that almost nothing we've seen has been purely by chance, and a series of plot twists and double-dealings start to tumble over one another. Wholly unexpected connections between characters are revealed, and the alignment of every relationship shifts constantly. What's especially impressive is how powerfully, though unobtrusively, the psychological framework Nolan constructs in the film's first act resonates throughout the rest of the movie. Everything from Bill's isolation and lack of self-awareness to Cobb's too-polished persona is deftly, purposefully orchestrated throughout the prickly narrative.

Shot in black-and-white, with lots of shadows and judicious close-ups, the British film flashes back, forward, then ahead again, as a voice-over carefully doles out information. Nolan, in his feature debut, demonstrates a facility with dialogue, character, actors and formal complexity, having each element complement one another as well as the whole. Following is a dense (though uncluttered), tautly directed, well-acted movie that — in a brisk 70 minutes — funnels classic genre tropes into indie filmmaking. In the process, the movie reminds us of the enduring power of the former, while lifting the latter out of the formulaic doldrums that have habitually rendered it indistinguishable from Hollywood assembly-line product.

FOLLOWING | Written and directed by CHRISTOPHER NOLAN Produced by NOLAN, JEREMY THEOBALD and EMMA THOMAS Released by Zeitgeist Films | At the Nuart

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