The classic modern noir of the 1990s remains one of the most inventive and provocative movies of the decade.
The Wachowskis went fairly rapidly from being the flavour of the month after the release of The Matrix to being critical pariahs after the Matrix sequels and pretty much everything since until Cloud Atlas. But all too often ignored in the discussion of their work – all big-budget, special effects-laden fare – is their best film, which also happens to be their first – Bound.
Bound, made in 1996 on a relatively low budget, takes the idea of neo-noir, twists it and screws with it, ensuring that while this is a story that is not necessarily original in idea, it remains fresh, gripping and constantly unpredictable. Characters never quite respond to events in the way that you expect them to, the plot twists and turns constantly and the visual style of the film is fairly breathtaking – even now, almost two decades on, Bound looks astonishing and fresh.
Of course, much of the attention that the film received then and now fixated on the central relationship between the two women at the heart of the story. Bound is frequently referred to as a ‘lesbian film’, and in a sense, it is simply because a mainstream film where the two protagonists are women who are in a relationship together was, at that time, unusual to the point of being unique. But it’s not a film that makes a big deal of this – you could easily replace Corky with a man and the story could be the same – even the much-discussed and genuinely erotic sex scene doesn’t feel as though it is playing to male fantasies or being salacious – it’s there because it needs to be there. The film refuses to make a big deal out of the characters’ sexuality and pretty much defies the viewer to do so either.
Central to the film are Corky (Gina Gershon) and Violet (Jennifer Tilly). Corky is fresh out of prison, making a new start fixing up an apartment for an unseen employer while making attempts to get back into the scene (an early attempt to pick up a girl – played by ‘sexpert’ and film consultant Susie Bright – in a bar ends in failure). Violet is the little-girl voiced sexpot girlfriend of mob boss Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) who lives next door. When the two meet in an elevator, you can see the sparks flying immediately – Corky is understandably attracted to Violet on a purely physical level but dismisses her as a bubble-headed straight girl; Violet, meanwhile, looks intrigued.
We first get a sense that there is more to Violet than meets the eye when she engineers a situation with a lost earring to seduce Corky. This is one of the great seduction scenes in cinema history, the entire situation crackling with sexual tension and desire – that nothing very much happens doesn’t matter, this is pure cinematic sexuality. But the burgeoning affair seems set to end early when Corky sees another man visiting Violet while Caesar is away. So, she’s just a little girl playing at lipstick lesbianism, Katy Perry style, right? Well, not quite.
When Caesar and his associates Mickey (John P. Ryan) and Johnnie (Christopher Meloni) start torturing Shelly (Barry Kivel) – Violet’s secret lover but more importantly, the man who has skimmed $2 million from the business – she flees to Corky’s apartment, where Violet shows her true colours. She’s with Caesar for convenience, not love. She wants out, and the fact that Caesar is about to collect the money from where Shelly had stashed it offers an opportunity. The two women hatch a plan to rip off the cash, assuming that when Caesar finds it gone, he’ll assume (thanks to Violet’s lies) that Johnnie, his hated rival and son of the Mafia boss, has set him up – at which point he’ll have no choice but to run. The Mafia will then assume he’s absconded with the cash. A perfect plan. But as in all noir films, perfect plans are never foolproof plans, and things start to go very wrong.
Ultra stylish crime thrillers were not exactly a rare thing in the 1990s, but Bound is exceptional in that it has substance too. This is a carefully, intricately plotted story that carefully has every moment lead to something else down the line, as the narrative develops in a series of fascinating and unexpected ways. There’s no fat on this film – every moment counts, every seemingly throwaway word having a meaning that might not become apparent immediately. It’s one of the smartest thrillers you’ll ever see. And it has a timeless feel to it – you could imagine this story as a hard-bitten, cynical Jim Thompson novel or a 1940’s noir film (minus the lesbianism perhaps). This timelessness is captured in the visuals too – while Johnnie wears the most ghastly suits you can imagine, they feel more 1980s than 1990s; Richard C. Sarafian as mob head Gino Marzzone is a Godfather type figure; and Violet has the hypersexuality and look of a mash-up of Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop. Nothing here says mid-Nineties, and maybe that’s why the film still seems so fresh – even at the time, it was out of time.
While Gershon is excellent as Corky – a more realistic impression of a bull dyke than we usually see on screen, boyish, hard-assed and tough, but still feminine and sexy – the film really belongs to Tilly. This was, after all, an actress who had been frequently cast as empty-headed bimbos thanks in part to her little girl voice and obvious sexiness. Here, she gets to subvert that. When we first see Violet, she is just about the sexiest person ever seen in a movie – I defy anyone, male or female, gay or straight, not to be turned on by her. But this is a character who knows what she is good at, and is willing to use those talents to her advantage. It’s notable that when we see her calling on Corky, she’s less glammed up – in jeans and t-shirt instead of figure-hugging designer dresses – and this, we suspect, is the real Violet. She knows how to play men to her advantage (every man in the film seems to be in love with her) and is willing to do so. One little look, late in the film, shows just how smart and knowing Violet is. She’s a fascinating character, and it’s this that allows us to overlook the criminal behaviour of her and Corky while condemning the mafia hoods.
Pantoliano is the third wheel in the relationship, but more than holds his own in the movie as the often hapless Caesar, who is trying to be a good footsoldier but who sees everything falling apart. It’s amusing to note that had he reacted in the way he was expected to when the money disappeared, things would probably have worked out rather better for him. It’s his clueless and misguided panicking that causes everything to spin out of control.
With slick editing, an impressive old-school score by Don Davis and impressively unrestrained moments of ultra-violence that are dropped in at just the right time, Bound remains a somewhat overlooked masterpiece. It deserves reassessment.
Help support The Reprobate: