Fans of 31-year-old British writer-director Christopher Nolan’s Memento will be quick to spot the joke implicit in the title of his 1998 feature debut, Following. Memento, as surely every movie buff knows by now, cunningly inverts chronology, starting at the end of Nolan’s narrative and working its way backward to the beginning. Following offers an even more complex timeline, teasingly interweaving past and present. Viewers fond of jigsaw puzzles and acrostic word games are advised not to miss the film’s one-week limited engagement in D.C.

Unlike Memento’s opening, in which Nolan immediately establishes his narrative strategy—a Polaroid photograph fading to gray, a bullet retreating from a corpse into the barrel of a gun—Following’s early sequences are deceptively straightforward. Bill (Jeremy Theobald, who also co-produced the film), a scruffy, jobless would-be writer, tells an unseen listener (a psychiatrist? a policeman?) about his obsession with shadowing random strangers he encounters on the street. Although he claims that he’s gathering information to spur his creativity, his voyeurism enlivens his otherwise marginal existence.

Bill makes a point of never trailing the same person twice, until the fateful day that he follows Cobb (Alex Haw) into a restaurant. Aware that he’s being observed, the well-dressed, self-assured Cobb confronts Bill and, in the course of an uncomfortable conversation, reveals that he’s a burglar who breaks into flats, examines the possessions of their inhabitants, and walks off with easily fenced items such as jewelry and CDs. (“You can learn a lot about people from their possessions,” he remarks.) In a sequence clearly influenced by Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, Bill accompanies Cobb on his next job, the robbery of a woman’s apartment. Subsequently, Bill encounters the same woman, an unnamed blond gangster’s moll (Lucy Russell), in a bar and finds himself drawn to her.

At this point, Following evolves into the narrative counterpart of a Möbius strip. Shifting back and forth through time, Nolan gradually reveals a sinister subtext underpinning Bill’s story. By the fatalistic fade-out, reminiscent of Edgar G. Ulmer’s B-movie classic Detour, Bill learns that he’s become the unwitting pawn in a more insidious plot than he could possibly invent or imagine.

Following is a reviewer’s nightmare, filled with twists and turns that cannot be discussed without spoiling the reader’s enjoyment of the film. Nolan’s juggling of time is expertly executed. A series of clues—the introduction of a telltale pearl earring prior to the scene in which it is stolen, a sequence showing Bill’s battered face before we witness his being beaten—alerts us that we are being slowly drawn into a labyrinth impossible to navigate. Like a chess master, Nolan remains several moves ahead of his audience, keeping us as perplexed as Bill, whom the nameless blonde characterizes as “a sad little fucker just waiting to be used.”

Given the budgetary and temporal constraints under which it was made, Following is an extraordinary achievement. Nolan spent six months rehearsing his cast, then shot the 16-mm black-and-white feature in 20 Saturdays spaced over the course of a year. (His cast and crew maintained weekday jobs and needed Sundays to rest.) Nolan could afford to expose only 15 minutes of footage each Saturday; this method demanded meticulous planning. Ironically, a sequence filmed in the director’s parents’ apartment was never finished because the family was robbed and the burglar made off with props required to complete the scene.

Necessity, the mother of guerrilla filmmaking, has yielded what to my mind is a more satisfying movie than Memento, on which Nolan enjoyed the luxuries of a larger budget, a longer shooting schedule, and the box-office lure of actor Guy Pearce. Memento, at just under two hours, struck me as somewhat bloated; its reverse-chronology gimmick felt excessively attenuated. At a taut 70 minutes, Following never exhausts Nolan’s imaginative resources. Each time we make assumptions about what might happen next, our expectations are ingeniously trumped.

In just two features, Nolan has forged a distinctive cinematic style, building on the ’60s continuity innovations of Alain Resnais and Richard Lester. In Hiroshima, Mon Amour and Providence, Resnais fractured chronology to illustrate how past experience predetermines our ability to perceive the present. And Lester’s fragmented editing style in Petulia, which juxtaposes vignettes from the pasts, presents, and futures of its characters, mirrors the chaotic ambiance of its setting—San Francisco at the height of the Vietnam War and the hippie movement.

But in Nolan’s work to date, form is an end in itself rather than an expression of content. Run Memento backward or reassemble Following’s scenes in chronological order and what’s left is little more than recycled ’40s film-noir clichés—hapless antiheroes on the run from double-crossing associates and duped by perfidious femmes fatales. Nolan already possesses more technique than any filmmaker requires. Now all he needs is to come up with, or commission, some ideas worthy of his formidable cinematic skills. CP