Is it love at first sight? At least, it is lust at first sight between them in the beginning. Something clicks inside them when we see them together at first. They soon begin their secret affair, and then, motivated by their common desire to escape from the world they are stuck in, they hatch a scheme to solve their problems once for all. They have a good plan. They can succeed if they carefully tiptoe along the thin line they draw. However, in the world of film noir, it is usually easier said than done.
While looking back at how its story works flawlessly in the Wachowski brothers’ terrific crime thriller “Bound”(1996), I recall what the arsonist played by Mickey Rourke said to William Hurt’s character in “Body Heat”(1981): “Any time you try a decent crime, you got fifty ways you’re gonna fuck up. If you think of twenty-five of them, then you’re a genius.” Indeed, there are many possible ways for how the things can go wrong for the characters in the movie, and it binds us tightly to its elaborate plot along with the characters, while cunningly toying with these fatal possibilities till its finale. The result is one of the most enjoyable neo-noir movies made during the 1990s.
Before capturing our attention in its grip completely, it lures us first with the relationship relatively unorthodox compared to other criminally dangerous liaisons we have encountered. While its two characters are as passionate as other memorable couples in film noir movies, there is an obvious difference in them that gives the film a unique quality. This time, they are lesbians – and both of them are well-qualified as femme fatales.
Some of our amusement with the movie comes from how it playfully utilizes the typical build-up process which has been mainly reserved for the heterosexual affairs. When they happen to be together in the elevator of the apartment building, Violet(Jennifer Tilly), taking off her sunglasses, sets her eyes on Corky(Gina Gershon), who recognizes her attention. Corky is an ex-con who has recently been released from the prison. She tries to adjust to a new way of life while doing the repair jobs including plumbing and painting at the apartment next to the one where Violet and her boyfriend Caeser(Joe Pantoliano) live. The wall between apartments is thin, and Corky sometime hears the sounds from the other side.
Exemplarily following the footsteps of her senior femme fatales in the film noir history, Violet makes her first move. The first encounter is accompanied with two cups of coffee from her(“I guessed you were straight black.”). The second encounter is due to a small plumbing problem with her earring ‘accidentally’ fallen into the sinkhole. Corky comes to Violet’s apartment; she fixes the problem in a short time. Violet offers a bottle of beer to her; she says she likes one of Corky’s tattoos. She asks Corky whether she wants to see her tattoos. You can guess what will happen next if you have some experience with adult materials.
The movie delivers what it promised to us while handling its sensational subject in a tasteful approach. For the realistic depiction of the lesbian relationship in their movie, the Wachowski brothers recruited a sex educator Susie Bright as their consultant, who briefly appears in the lesbian bar scene. With the shady atmosphere provided by the cinematographer Bill Pope, the sex scenes are presented to us as something hot, wet, steamy and naked – with, above all, a bit of mystery to tantalize us. The love scenes in movies are usually more interesting they are not naked, but this case is a good exception in which the main play can be as interesting as the foreplay, if not more interesting than that.
But sex is actually its foreplay. The movie starts to entertain us more than we expected when another thing to spice up their relationship comes handy to them: crime. While watching Violet and Corky beginning to confer the plot together, I remember how compelling it was to observe the couple in Billy Wilder’s “Double Indemnity”(1944) plot and prepare for their crime during their secret meetings in the open space while not noticed by others. Like “Brokeback Mountain” works as a universal love story approachable to us, “Bound” works as a universal crime story absorbing to us. As a very flexible style still on the evolution progress, film noir knows no boundary – I am glad that it embraces every dangerous couple.
Neither of them is a fool, so Violet and Corky are well aware of one crucial logical question which comes naturally along with their plot: can they trust each other? Corky points that out succinctly. “For me, stealing’s always been a lot like sex. Two people who want the same thing: they get in a room, they talk about it. They start to plan. It’s kind of like flirting. It’s kind of like… foreplay, ’cause the more they talk about it, the wetter they get. The only difference is, I can fuck someone I’ve just met. But to steal? I need to know someone like I know myself.”
Do they know each other as much as they know themselves? Even if they put that question aside, they will have to take lots of risks in their plan; they are going to steal the money from some Mafia family Caeser works for as a money launderer. Recently, Caeser happens to keep the money retrieved from the guy who dares to skim about 2 million dollars from their business. Corky and Violet will snatch the money in Caeser’s custody before it is handed to his associates, and Caeser will be their patsy to be framed; once he finds the money is gone, he will flee in fear of his life, and his associates will think he run away with the money.
His people are definitely not the guys you can mess with. In one particularly cringe-inducing scene at the bathroom of Caeser’s apartment, they ruthlessly beat that guy who stole the money from them and threaten to sever his fingers one by one if he does not tell them where he stashes the money. Though the movie tactfully saves us from the gruesome details, with the drops of blood dripped into the water in the toilet, this scene is one of the strikingly violent scenes in the film.
This is surely a violent movie which can you make wince, but it is also very amusing to see how this ‘chamber crime drama’ functions like a clever comedy. Once there is no turning back for the characters, the movie becomes more devious with its plot continuously twisted in the limited space and time. Most of the main incidents revolve around two neighboring apartments in a short span of time, except for one brief scene where the characters go to a certain place. The more desperate they are, the more claustrophobic the mood becomes, and the more limited their options are. Lots of things keep happening to them, so they have to do lots of things, including, for example, hiding the incriminating traces from the visiting policemen, who may find something fishy inside the apartment.
They become quite busy as the clockwork plot gets thickened and twisted with precise timing worthy of a classic screwball comedy, and, as a result, the film looks like a kinky hybrid between the Marx Brothers and the Coen brothers. For every move, there is a consequence that complicates the characters’ situation, and they have to deal with it along with previous ones. Amid the series of improvisations concocted by them, the plot seems like unpredictable at first, but we realize later everything that happens on the screen is inevitably directed toward the brief scene shown at the start, which is also logically progressed into the finale. The Wachowski brothers’ screenplay deserves to be cited in screenplay writing lectures as an excellent case of making the inevitable unpredictable. They learned how to play notes efficiently from others including the Coen brothers, and they knew the music, and their homework deserves A+.
Along with slick hard-boiled lines(“I’m not apologizing for what I did. I’m apologizing for what I didn’t do.”), their screenplay has sly tongue-in-cheek humor to tickle us. While emphasizing the potential grave danger Corky and Violet will face, the Wachowski brothers do not miss the chances to draw the black humor from the violent situations(“Caesar, I’m leaving.” – “What? Oh, come on, I didn’t use one of the good towels.”). In one of the funniest scenes in the movie, Caeser is so serious about his work to do that we cannot help but amused by a surreal sight of hundred-dollar bills handled in a way that will remind you the inherent meaning of money laundering. You can probably guess what I mean, but Caeser is far more serious in his work than what you imagine – that is why it is so hilarious to watch.
Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon are simply fabulous as the unconventional partners in crime. They are seductive as required, they are strong as demanded, and their chemistry sparks the movie every minute. Jennifer Tilly had already played a gun moll in Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway”(1994), but she is far different from that spectacularly empty-headed character in Allen’s movie. Violet is a manipulative woman with brain, and she knows how to handle women as well as men(Tilly subtly reveals her different strategies for them with her breathy voice). There is her strong will, and there is always her way she is looking for even during her most desperate minutes.
Recently, I finally watched Paul Verhoben’s infamous film “Showgirls”(1995), one of the most enjoyable bad movies in the 1990s, for the first time, and I was entertained by how Gina Gershon, as one of few good things in the movie, had a campy fun among all those non-CGI body parts. In case of “Bound”, Gershon got the right story for her talent. Basically, her character can be substituted with a male character, but Gershon’s solid performance makes her character distinct with sexy toughness equal to Tilly’s willy seductiveness.
As the Wachowski brothers’ ace in the hole, Joe Pantolian is the combustible fuel to the spark generated by Tilly and Gershon. Caeser is not bright enough to see what is going on between with his girl and the plumber on the next door, but, albeit in a misguided direction, he is smart enough to try to find a way out of his impending doom to come. The more cornered he is, the more dangerous he is, and the more unpredictable the situation is. None the less, even when he is near mental breakdown, his brain knows one plus one is two, and, in one heart-stopping moment, our attention is fixed on what he can infer from one small miscalculation; it only requires the redial button on the telephone.
“Bound” was the Wachowski brothers’ first movie. They wrote their first screenplay for Richard Donner’s “Assassins”(1995), and they were not happy about the end product(and neither were we), so they decided to direct the movie for themselves with their second screenplay, which turned out be far better than their previous one. With the tight budget brought by late Dino De Laurentiis, they succeeded in making a skillful noir thriller to be remembered; it was good enough to be not only a breakthrough but also the stepping stone for the next big step in their career – the huge financial success with “Matrix”(1999) and the following two sequels.
While working mainly as the producers/writers after that success, the Wachowski brothers’ directing career has been relatively quiet except that disastrous flop “Speed Racer”(2008), and many people will probably remember them as the directors of “Matrix”. I hope they will be surprised and delighted someday by this small dark film which remains as their best work to date. It’s a good crime story, and we have a fun and thrill with its compelling criminal heroines. They are clever girls – who can say they can’t get away with their crime?