It might be strange to think of it now, but there was a time when The Wachowskis pitched The Matrix, arguably the defining action movie of the 90s, and Warner Bros. was somewhat skeptical about letting them directing it.
It stands to reason, the siblings had not yet directed anything, and only had one credited screenplay to their name, in the shape of the Sylvester Stallone/Antonio Banderas/Julianne Moore action film Assassins; a film that had undergone a heavy re-write by Brian Helgeland to the point where the siblings wanted their names removed from the released version.
In order to not be burned with another of their projects in a similar way again, The Wachowskis insisted they direct The Matrix themselves, a script they had sold to producer Joel Silver at the same time as Assassins, but with Warner Bros. hesitant to let the untried siblings direct what was looked to be an ambitious, expensive film, the Wachowskis set out to direct a lower budgeted project in order to prove they could call the shots on a feature film.
At least that’s what Joel Silver has always said, claiming in interview after interview that the siblings made Bound as an “audition” piece in order to prove they could make The Matrix, a claim discounted by Lana Wachowski who counter-claimed that they simply wanted to make their directorial debut.
In the end, whatever their reasoning for doing so, there is no mistaking that Bound is one hell of a directorial debut. Yes, there is a low-budget feel to the movie in the sense that a lot of it takes place in mostly two apartment sets, but there is a beautiful ambitiousness to the craft and storytelling that really sets it apart from other modern-day noir and erotic thrillers.
Structurally and in terms of narrative, the film could have told its story with a central pairing made up of a male and female relationship. In a move that raised some eyebrows (it was 1996, eyebrows were raised for stupid, borderline conservative reasons sometimes), the Wachowskis opted to make both characters female. Unsurprisingly, many studios who took a look at the script before it ended up with Dino De Laurentiis’, wanted to change the gender of Corky to a male.
The story tells of Corky and Violet (Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly) setting out to swindle $2 million from the mafia and subsequently make it look as if Violet’s scumbag boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) has taken it. At first glance, this may appear like typical fodder for a modern-day noir that’s really an excuse to throw its towel in as an erotic thriller, complete with unnecessary borderline soft-core sex scenes, but the film is quietly subversive and sometimes ingenious with how it twists and turns the narrative core of many of the tropes associated with both noir and the erotic thriller.
Most thrillers of this type would throw in double crosses, triple crosses and have the central couple both have ulterior motives for doing what they’re doing. Instead, beautifully, it has to be said, the Wachowskis make Violet and Corky’s relationship genuinely romantic. The sex scenes between them are explicit but they never feel exploitative; they’re brilliantly choreographed by sex expert Susie Bright who ensured that the sex scenes put its emphasis on female pleasure as opposed to male gaze-fuelled exploitation. The attitude towards their relationship is, surprisingly for a film of the era and one set in a darkened noir-infected world like this, very sex positive.
Film noir has always featured relationships and sexuality that, whilst undeniably steamy and from the 70s onwards more sexually explicit, has always had a ticking time bomb quality due to the fact they inevitably fall apart due to either lack of trust, ulterior motives or just the fact that one of the couple in question (usually the female of the pair) is going to betray the sadly gullible male in order to get away, usually with a high quantity of insurance money.
There is nothing wrong that narrative. In fact, Double Indemnity and Lawrence Kasdan’s modern-day equivalent Body Heat effectively tell the same stories and are brilliant for it, but the way the Wachowskis take those tropes, turn them around, tell a great lesbian love story and have us all cheering with joy as they get one over the weasel-like Caesar (Pantoliano does a great job as the put-upon mobster) and the almost comically gullible mafia is one of the film’s greatest joys.
Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon are simply wonderful throughout. Their chemistry is undeniably potent and off the charts, their characters strong and wonderful and, best of all, they’re both women sticking it, literally, to the man. Gershon walks into the movie with a swagger and bravado that makes one love Corky instantly, while Tilly as Violet brings strength and vulnerability to Violet. Her manipulative touches in how she runs rings over Caesar and Sal (John Ryan) are some the film’s best and most subtle comedic moments. Both their performances and the way the Wachowskis have written them ensure that you’re cheering them on all the way to the end credits.
It’s directed superbly to within an inch of its life in the best possible manner, with the Wachowskis’ use of the camera, their editing and direction managing to be both incredibly stylish and yet still allowing the film to be full of substance. They may deny that the film was an audition piece for The Matrix – and Bound is incredibly powerful enough to stand on its own that’s for sure – but there are stylistic touches here that one can see being used as an example to the conservative brass of Warner Bros. as a way to say “hey, look what we can do”.
None of it would matter, however, if it weren’t for Corky and Violet. Film noir has given us some of the most brilliant flirtations in cinema history; Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck’s back and forth in Double Indemnity set the tone for the entire genre and the characters in it. Likewise, Lana Turner and John Garfield in The Postman Always Rings Twice. It really says something about Bound that it feels like it’s taken the sexually charged flirtations of those movies, but added the more explicitness of their respective modern-day versions; and yet, in a lovely move, the Wachowskis never allow any inevitable bitterness or cynicism to overtake Corky and Violet’s relationship.
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Both women are devoted to each other throughout the film and while logic sometimes dictates in these movies the crime doesn’t pay (because men are inevitably gullible in a narrative like this and must go to jail while their female love gets away with the money), the Wachowskis allow Corky and Violet to escape into the sunset, all the while Tom Jones sings ‘She’s a Lady’ over the soundtrack.
It’s a punch-the-air brilliant ending that, given how violent a film it can be, kind of leaves one feeling positive about what they’ve watched, even if some sliced off fingers end up on the bathroom floor.
Twenty-two years after its debut, a fact that can terrifyingly make one feel old, Bound has lost none of its brilliance. In fact, if anything, its portrayal of a same-sex relationship now feels less revolutionary as it did back in 1996, and more mainstream and normal. For any other movie, losing a revolutionary quality of sorts would be a bad thing, but the fact that we can watch a film like Bound and view Corky and Violet’s relationship as normal and natural and less of a character subversion is actually a great thing.
We live in times where certain figures in politics are trying to impose political and moral views that are 50 years out of date. A film like Bound feels less like it stands out now and more like it’s in line with where many in liberal mainstream society and pop culture view same-sex relationships. When the film was first released, same-sex marriage was not legalised anywhere. Now, many countries have legalised it and the sight of same-sex couples has become common and normal.
While it means Bound may not stand out from the crowd as it used to in terms of its central pairing, the film’s twisty-turn narrative and subversion of those tropes within the genre still ensure that it’s a masterful debut from its writing/directing siblings. Without it, we would probably not have gotten The Matrix, but we also wouldn’t have gotten their wonderful screenplay for V For Vendetta, or, more importantly, their Netflix series Sense8, which saw the siblings give us several sets of LGBTQ couples. Filmed 20 years after Bound, it still saw its characters deal with hostility from certain quarters, but also in a world that was more accommodating and where their relationships didn’t feel like a subversion of some storytelling tropes. They just were.
Bound has aged well to the point where one can enjoy the film without thinking about that narrative subversion and just enjoy Tilly and Gershon’s chemistry, and Corky and Violet getting one over the male-dominated mob. But it also stands as a very important film in some regards. As a modern-day film noir, it’s undeniably one of the very best, but even more so as a film that put a same-sex relationship front and centre as if was the most normal, natural thing in the world. That they just happen to be stealing money and getting one over the mafia made it all the more fun.