In 1996, two mainstream movies were released that offered positive, judgment-free portraits of same-sex relationships. The first was The Birdcage, an energetic remake of La Cage aux Folles starring Robin Williams and Nathan Lane as a gay couple. The second was Bound, a twisty neo-noir starring Gina Gershon (Killer Joe) and Jennifer Tilly (Bullets Over Broadway) as a lesbian couple who decide to steal money from the mob. While the former film builds its entire plot around the fact that its two main characters are gay, the latter takes a surprisingly casual approach: the fact that the main characters are in a same-sex relationship is more or less incidental. The script was pitched to a wide variety of studio executives, most of whom wanted directors Lilly and Lana Wachowski (then known as Andy and Larry Wachowski) to change the Gershon character to a man. Eventually, the siblings persuaded Gramercy Pictures to let them make the movie as written. It's no surprise that someone finally bit: this is a terrific piece of storytelling.
Corky (Gershon) is an ex-con who has just finished up a five-year prison sentence. She gets a job doing maintenance work at the apartment building where she lives, and wearily accepts the fact that her future will be filled with clogged drains and busted pipes. Shortly after starting the job, a new couple moves into the apartment next door: up-and-coming mobster Caesar (Joe Pantoliano, The Matrix) and his girlfriend Violet (Tilly). Corky and Violet make eyes at each other in the elevator. Violet visits Corky to offer a cup of coffee and a bit of conversation. Corky visits Violet to fix a sink. One thing leads to another, and a new romance is born.
They'll have to be careful, of course: Caesar is a hot-tempered, violent man, and probably wouldn't react well to the news that his girlfriend is sleeping with someone else. Soon, the two women discover an opportunity for a thrilling new future. Caesar and his associates are working on recovering more than $2 million in cash from Shelley (Barry Kivel, Crocodile Dundee), an accountant who has been skimming money from the mob. Once the money is secured, Caesar will be responsible for holding it for a little while. During this time, Corky will steal the money, Violet will wait for the situation to resolve itself (she figures that Caesar will probably panic and run) and the two lovers will ride off into the sunset. Naturally, it won't be quite that easy.
One of the most interesting things about Bound is the way it uses sudden sharp tonal shifts to keep the audience on its toes. The initial romantic encounter between Corky and Violet aims for pure sensuality, as intense close-ups, whispered dialogue and romantic music create a trance-like atmosphere of desire... and then Caesar comes barging into the room, sending the two women scrambling to collect themselves and cover up any evidence of their activities. In a heartbeat, the film transforms into a playful comedy, with Caesar's clueless wisecracks thoroughly punctuating the mood. It's the sort of move the Wachowskis employ again and again throughout the film, shifting from lightweight comedy to brutal violence to tender romance to heart-stopping suspense over and over again. The Wachowskis have occasionally struggled to juggle clashing tonal elements on some of their other projects, but they pull it off admirably here.
A great deal of the film draws inspiration from the twisty noir thrillers of the '40s and '50s, and the character types feel familiar. It's easy to imagine another version of this movie featuring Robert Mitchum as Corky, Ava Gardner as Violet and Kirk Douglas as Caesar, and all three of the lead actors in this version do an admirable job of suggesting iconic archetypes while giving their character a sense of individuality. The film mixes and matches the character combinations regularly, allowing Gershon's relaxed confidence (Corky's the kind of no-nonsense woman who drives a pick-up truck, drinks beer and always wears blue jeans), Tilly's coy sultriness and Pantoliano's goofy energy to mix and match in a variety of different ways. It's a pleasure to watch these people do their thing, and the film is smart about finding ways to give them room to breathe without compromising the increasingly breakneck pace of the plot.
This is a confident directorial debut, and an exceptionally polished film considering the movie's limited budget. There's a comic book energy that informs the film's visual sensibility, which becomes less surprising when you learn that the Wachowskis and cinematographer Bill Pope drew inspiration from Frank Miller's Sin City comics. Given the intelligence of the script and the film's stylish look, it's easy to see why the Wachowskis graduated to big-budget blockbusters in a heartbeat. Don Davis' score adds a good deal too, employing cool, relaxed jazz during some of the film's quieter sequences but occasionally allowing the music to enter the realm of grand classical drama: the music featured the film's climax feels like something that might have been written for a Shakespearean tragedy.
The fact that the film's same-sex relationship is treated so casually makes Bound feel groundbreaking for 1996 (it was the first mainstream Hollywood film to portray a lesbian relationship without making that relationship the central point of the story), but the Wachowskis give it plenty of attention in subtle ways, employing all sorts of playful symbolism (there are many scenes of characters digging around in drains – one imagines Hitchcock grinning in admiration) and using the cramped spaces of the apartment building to suggest the emotional cages the women are in. They also pay careful attention to the very different ways the two women treat their sexuality. Corky is completely open about who she is, and carries herself with a nonchalant “I don't give a damn” attitude (again, she's very much the hard-boiled noir hero in this scenario). Violet has to be more cautious with telling people about her preferences, and makes subtle changes in the way she speaks depending on who she's talking to (the men get a high-pitched, girlish voice, while Corky gets a lower, more natural voice).
Bound is a remarkably violent film at times (there's a torture scene that proves particularly cringe-inducing) and has its fair share of dark, knot-in-your-stomach passages... but curiously, there's also a sense of real joy that permeates the proceedings. The morning after their first dalliance, Corky walks up to her apartment building (one of the film's few outdoor shots – you can practically smell the fresh air) to the strains of Ray Charles' jubilant “Hallelujah I Love Her So.” That feeling of pure happiness appears elsewhere on occasion, reminding you of what these characters might have if they can find a way out of this mess. The other part of the film's joyfulness comes from how much passion the Wachowskis put into this debut feature... you sense how excited they are to be making their first real movie. While you can see traces of their later efforts in Bound (some of the mobster scenes bear a resemblance to certain sequences in Cloud Atlas, and the film's efforts to defy conventional gender roles certainly offers a hint at things to come on both a personal and professional level), it remains a unique part of their filmography. This one belongs on the shelf next to The Last Seduction, One False Move and A Simple Plan as one of the great neo-noir flicks of the '90s.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Year: 1996