(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. Since June is Pride Month, we’re taking a deep dive into the works of Lana and Lilly Wachowski, two of the most prominent – and fascinating – transgender filmmakers around. Read the rest of our Filmmaker of the Month coverage of the Wachowskis here.)
Earlier this week, Entertainment Weekly revisited the Wachowskis’ inaugural directing effort in a two-hand interview with the stars Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly. Alongside their words runs a pictorial series of the two actors that I think can best be characterized as “sexy.” It’s not not exploitative, but it is undeniably sexy. Similarly, the questions spend quite some time exploring the undeniable hotness of Bound.
I point this out not to drag EW. The interview is excellent and the photo shoot is probably their best in a while. However, it does point to how large Bound looms in pop culture as “that sexy lesbian noir.” And it totally is. It just also happens to be that “really well-done sexy lesbian noir.”
Released in 1996, Bound takes place in a kind of alternate-universe present day. The trappings feel very early ‘60s. However, glimpses of the outside world, the amount of money that drives the plot, the state of the Mafia, and other signifiers suggest it could be unfolding in the apartment building a few blocks away. Corky (Gershon) is a recently paroled thief — a redistributor of wealth to paraphrase her parlance — who has been lucky enough to get a job renovating and refurbishing a formerly lavish one bedroom.
Next door lives Ceasar (Joe Pantoliano) — a mob money launderer — and his former club girl moll Violet (Tilly). A chance encounter in the elevator puts the next several days on their lives on rails. Violet decides she has grown tired of playing straight. Corky cannot resist the femme fatale. And oh look, over two million dollars has ended up in Ceasar’s hands after an associate, Shelly (Barry Kivel) has his embezzlement attempt exposed and is sent off the mortal coil for it. Violet may or not truly want to run away with Corky but she does want to run away. The money is really there. Corky just needs to figure out if she trusts her new girlfriend or if Violet has just cast a spell on her.
The Wachowskis’ script is fairly straightforward in construction, but they introduce just enough complication to keep you guessing. The framing device — seeing a bound (Oh! Do you think that’s where the title comes from?) Gershon alone in a dark room — hints at a situation gone awry without tipping the film’s hand about how we got there. It also proves to be the Wachowskis’ best script from a dialogue perspective; they know noir well, and they incorporate its trappings and tics without making the words feel cliché. Especially in the scenes between Tilly and Gershon, the screenplay has an almost screwball sense of playfulness. There is certainly a harder edge to the insults, but the way they throw words back and forth wonderfully recalls the rhythms of that subgenre.
You can see and feel the sisters “putting on” different styles, searching for themselves amongst their influences.
As for Gershon and Tilly, the two are pitch-perfect. Tilly uses her voice, a surprising mix of high-pitched and breathy, perfectly. You can totally see how easily Violet could be ignored or discounted and how dangerous a choice that can be. She plays her part remarkably free of deception, an obvious expert at telling people what they want to hear without, exactly, lying. Gershon did a lot of work “being in her body” as she put it and it shows, looking and feeling tough without being performative. Her Cocky is entirely fine with who she is and how she presents, and that carries through her every move.
The supporting cast is wonderful as well. Pantoliano finds a sweet spot for Ceasar, revealing him to be an animal that has tricked himself into thinking he’s refined. He calls the Mob “business”; he likes to treat everyone like they’re good people and he’s good people; he maintains a beautiful home and air of domestic life. However, the moment he gets agitated or things go sideways, we immediately see the rage that’s always present underneath. Christopher Meloni as Johnnie Marzzone, the boss’s son who is pure id, zero thoughtfulness, is a treat as Ceasar’s proverbial thorn (and general sociopath). His final line of the film could have been a real groaner, but Meloni 100 percent sells it.
Less assured is the Wachowskis’ approach to directing, but just barely. You can see and feel the sisters “putting on” different styles, searching for themselves amongst their influences. There is slow motion here, a nearly silent scene there, the Spike Lee racing zoom a few moments later. From a technical standpoint, the Wachowskis nail all of it. It just does not feel like they have found their style yet. Bound still looks great but there is little to suggest, for instance, The Matrix, nevermind their more gonzo choices in Speed Racer and Jupiter Ascending.
The exceptions, I would say, come when it is Tilly and Gershon alone, playing their games of seduction and trust. To return to the question of hotness, the Wachowskis know how to film scenes of desire and sex. They are undeniably exciting but they dodge the specter male gaze. It may seem impossible when, for instance, Tilly repeatedly runs one finger over a small tattoo less than an inch from her nipple until Gershon takes over with her full hand, but it’s true. The mix of pans and close-ups puts you into their affair and yet it is somehow all suggested, nothing explicit. They have two very attractive actors together, naked, in bed, and far and away the sexiest moment is a close up of Gershon biting her co-star’s thumb, presumably to muffle herself. In that perfect mix of suggestion and restraint, the Wachowskis seem to have fully come into their own directorial style.
As with the sisters’ other efforts, identity creeps in as an identifiable theme for Bound. Tilly is both in and out of the closet; she’s apparently active enough with women that one of Ceasar’s “co-workers” has run into her making out with women at the bar. Caesar, however, seems to not have a clue about her sexual identity until the film’s climax. Corky is struggling to remain an ex-con but the mix of her own sexuality and her personal sense of justice — financially and otherwise — conspire to knock her off course.
Tilly’s Violet captures everyone’s situation best when she describes Shelly’s death having more to do with his own desire to stay with what he knew — even knowing how it would end — than risk stepping outside his routine. As with the themes of finding one’s true self in The Matrix, it is almost impossible now to hear Tilly’s monologue and not imagine the Wachowskis’ — perhaps only subconscious at that time — yearning to be who they knew they truly were, beyond their biology.
The noir trappings, the dialogue, the examination of identity, the fearlessness to portray lesbian attraction on-screen for more than titillation, the investigation of technical ability in search of personal directing style — it makes Bound not just their first film, but their best complete effort to date. The Matrix proved they could create massive worlds and pose incredible questions while making your heart race. Speed Racer is perhaps the most honest expression of a “live-action cartoon” ever. Cloud Atlas is so a feat of incredible ambition. However, pound for pound, moment to moment, they have never so fully realized their goals as they did with this small, quiet noir that they nearly did not get to make because they valued the truth of it — a story of two women in love — over the studio’s money.