“I’m not apologizing for what I did. I’m apologizing for what I didn’t do.” —Jennifer Tilly, Bound
In the wake of Basic Instinct a few years earlier—and the wave of Shannon Tweed “sexy thrillers” that followed—it was hard to take the sexual politics of the Wachowskis’ 1996 debut feature Bound too seriously. Other than the evident craft that the first-time filmmakers brought to their neo-noir, how much of a difference could there be between Bound, a film sold on the steamy love scenes between Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon, and the “edgy” softcore of Tweed’s Indecent Behavior or Madonna’s Body Of Evidence or Deborah Kara Unger’s Whispers In The Dark? This seemed like lipstick lesbianism of the ruby-red variety, the sort of classed-up exploitation that was being sold every other week to a male audience. Any relationship to how two women actually shared intimacies would surely be incidental, especially in the genre of “femmes fatale,” an archetype where deviousness and sex appeal go hand in glove.
Seen today, with the Basic Instinct era having long since disappeared from the rearview mirror, Bound looks like a genuine benchmark for LGBT cinema, particularly in light of Larry Wachowski’s gender transition into Lana Wachowski. A lesbian relationship that once seemed like the hook for a showy modern noir now seems like the inverse—a showy noir that traffics in a substantive, empowering (and okay, a little steamy) look at two women trying to negotiate a man’s world. It ticks off all the neo-noir boxes—hyper-stylized camerawork, explicit violence, an Angelo Badalamenti-like bassline in the score—while quietly subverting expectations of who Tilly and Gershon are and where the story will lead them. And though the film’s technical bravado no doubt played a role in giving the Wachowskis the chance to direct The Matrix, it’s no mere calling card. Bound is as personally invested as anything they’ve done since.
To say Bound is a double-meaning title understates the way the Wachowskis thread the concept into the fabric of the movie, where Tilly and Gershon are bound literally, bound to each other, bound to the powerful men who control their destinies, and bound by their own ideas about what intimacy could mean for them. Since this is a crime film, getting unbound involves a plan to steal $2 million in mob money and run off together, but the Wachowskis remain conscious of how their theme is developing, even as they choreograph suspenseful setpieces with a “Look, ma!” flair that’s only occasionally distracting. The stakes are high, but to the Wachowskis’ credit, the question isn’t “Will they get away with the money?” but “Will they make it out together (with their lives and their tenuous trust intact)?” That’s a different level of engagement than the crime genre usually encourages.
Occupying adjoining spaces in an apartment building with thinner walls than Rosemary’s Baby, Violet (Tilly) and Corky (Gershon) both work for gangsters, but have starkly contrasting skill sets. Violet plays mistress to Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), a smarmy slickster who launders money for the mafia, but she accepts the occasional “client” from her old line of work selling her body. The butch, beer-swilling Corky takes a job fixing the plumbing at the empty, mob-owned apartment next door. (Violet is feminine, Corky masculine; the movie shorthand here is crude enough even before the Wachowskis show Corky wearing a pair of men’s briefs.) It does not take long for Violet’s boredom and curiosity to lead her to lose an earring in the kitchen sink and beckon Corky over to clean out the pipes, if you catch the Wachowskis’ drift. After a pair of sex scenes—of the extended-version-is-unrated variety—they begin to imagine a life together, away from the dangerous men who control their lives.
To that end, they hatch a scheme to steal $2 million in mafia money and play the warring factions within Caesar’s world against each other. The plan entails Violet creating a distraction that allows Corky to slip out of the apartment with the cash, then later implying that a loose cannon within the mob family (Christopher Meloni) was responsible. The beauty of the theft is that it hardly matters who ultimately gets pinned for the crime, just as long as suspicions are stoked enough within the organization to hold someone responsible. In fact, the only thing that could keep this circular firing squad from blasting away is an unforced error, which Violet (and those thin apartment walls) provides. Her utter foolishness strains credulity, even given her amateur status, but the Wachowskis spin it into an unforgettably tense setpiece.
Starting with opening titles that fuse digital lettering with the old-fashioned interplay of light and shadow, the Wachowskis try hard—sometimes too hard—to square noir tradition with a more modern color palette and showier staging. Comparisons to the Coen brothers were made often when the film was released, and they are especially obvious in Bill Pope’s camera work, which employs some of the acrobatics Barry Sonnenfeld used to pull when he was the Coens’ director of photography. But the Wachowskis find a simple, striking way to update the high-contrast black-and-white of the ’50s for the ’90s: Limit all colors that aren’t black, white, or red. Violet wears black dresses against red lipstick, Corky slips a black leather jacket over a white workman’s T-shirt, the brutality of a mob beatdown contrasts droplets (and rivers) of blood with the stark white porcelain of a bathroom. The Wachowskis have not always benefited from controlling every frame so tightly—the worst of The Matrix movies are airless and dull, and the multi-timeline drama in the upcoming Cloud Atlas is rendered simple to the extreme—but their clean lines and popping colors give Bound a snap, and help make stereotypical gangsterism look like archetypical gangsterism.
The Wachowskis pull off a few other neat tricks, too, like intercutting Violet and Corky’s plan-making with the actual execution of said plan, or a great sequence where Caesar and Violet hastily tuck away a body in their apartment and stand by as a couple of cops come agonizingly close to finding it. But smooth as the mechanics are, what this suspense machine is really engineering is a personal, progressive love story that holds the entire period of mid-’90s “sexy thrillers” in sharp relief. The Wachowskis brought on the feminist Susie Bright as a “sex consultant,” and choreographed the sex scenes to her suggestions, shunning the erotic triggers of male-aimed softcore lesbianism in favor of the particulars of female pleasure. Tilly and Gershon have great chemistry together, but their couplings have a charge to them that doesn’t feel pornographic, perhaps because their characters seem more determined to get each other off than to satisfy some invisible audience.
Bound lays its metaphor on thick: It only takes a minute or two before offering a shot of a lesbian with her arms and ankles tied, trapped in the closet. But at least it’s interested in lesbianism as more than window-dressing of the red-light district variety. By working in the noir genre, the Wachowskis completely upend expectations by making their femmes fatale merely femmes, teasing the audience with their black-leather allure and criminal designs only to have them searching, in earnest, for the exit door. No double crosses. No ulterior motives. No ice picks. Just a life where they’re the ones tying the knots.