You Have to See… is a weekly feature here at 4:3, where one staff writer picks a film they love and makes a group of other writers watch it for the first time. Once this group has seen the film, the suggestor writes a piece advocating the film and the others respond below. Whilst not explicitly spoiling the film, the article is detailed. We would recommend seeking out and watching the film each week, then joining in the debate in the comments section.
For this instalment, Dominic Barlow looks at the 1996 debut feature from the Wachowskis, Bound.
Editor’s Note (9th March 2016): This feature has been amended in light of Lilly Wachowski’s transition.
Lilly and Lana Wachowski are two of the most interesting directors creating films in Hollywood, or films made in the style of Hollywood, at least. While they both found broad success by writing and directing The Matrix trilogy, their later efforts have not found the same fortune. Cloud Atlas befuddled Australian distributors into delaying a theatrical release until it was out on American home media, and their lucid live-action version of Speed Racer sooner encouraged snarky car-crash puns in the trades before the small cult following it has today. While we have space fantasy Jupiter Ascending and Netflix sci-fi series Sense8 to receive from them next year, it’s worthwhile to look back at their first effort, the 1996 neo-noir crime thriller Bound, and reaffirm what makes them still worth discussing today: a palpable love of genre cinema, an affiliation for character dynamics that exist outside of heteronormative conventions, and a blazing sincerity that amends the two wonderfully.
Bound begins with a woman, Corky (Gina Gershon), literally bound with ropes, keeled over on the floor inside a wardrobe. As the camera arcs down to slowly reveal her, we hear people speaking about choices made, and money stolen – snatches of dialogue from the story we are about to see. It then begins proper as a flashback that starts with one choice Corky made: holding a lift open for Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and her mafia squeeze Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). Corky is fresh out of jail and trying to hold down a maintenance job in the apartment next to the one that Violet and Caesar call home. Violet, meanwhile, is trapped in a violent criminal underworld that her husband launders money for. Her urge to leave blossoms when she starts yearning for Corky, dropping by unannounced with full cups of coffee. One plumbing house call later and the two are in bed, thinking of how to get the lives they both want after five years of being tied down. They settle on a scheme to prey on Caesar’s insecurities and steal over two million dollars of mob money from under his nose, making it look like the work of hated rival Johnnie Marzzone (Christopher Meloni) and landing him in deep enough water for them to skip out. Naturally, not everything goes to plan. New factors emerge, tables are turned and guises are swapped out to fit new circumstances… so naturally, it helps to go in with no further detail and experience the many surprises in store.
Given that the central romance is established so efficiently before the crime-thriller fun begins, it’s tempting to say that the film is a blast even without considering that element. Putting aside the fallacious notion of removing the central relationship from analysis as though aspects of the film’s plot or tone had nothing to do with it, it’s an unabashedly positive element that demands no tolerance or apology. Three quick but important encounters are all it takes for Corky and Violet to commit to each other, and the film makes that leap just fine, thanks to sensual cinematography and crackling film noir dialogue that makes both of them agents in their own story. It brims also with a mature and feminine outlook, where Corky and Violet can be very diverse from one another, with their two vastly different femininities binding into each other like clasped hands. The same is done for the male characters, with the mafia crew maintaining their own masculine bonds in ways that fit with the eloquent yet brutal style of the film. The Wachowskis are often accused of having characters engage in what seems like naked thematic rumination, so the wonderfully layered interplay found throughout Bound is a delightful counter argument.
It’s also good to see them having such fun too, and not just because of the flirtatious visual innuendo.1 Bound bounces through its runtime with enviable panache, full of the fun kind of 1:1 audiovisual semiotics practised by blockbuster auteurs before and after. There’s no especially heady symbolism and all sorts of camera motion, which literally propels and jerks us through the story’s turns, flaunting a few glorious trick shots along the way. Even the smallest insert shot is satisfyingly placed, and often boosted by Dane A. Davis’ killer sound design, who finds wind rushes and even animal growls to go with the giddy transitions, and Don Davis’ sharp score, which acts as a spiritual ancestor to his iconic compositions for The Matrix. Truly impressive is the production design by Eve Cauley, which mostly strips the colours down to white-and-grey hues and then splashes violent red in the simplest places for the greatest effect. Blood splatters on spotless bathroom ceramic, Johnnie Marzzone wears a red suit befitting the man who inspires all of Caesar’s petulant rage, and the thin wall of Corky’s apartment is covered in crimson wallpaper, making it feel like the literal heart of the operation as she listens through it. That starkness of blood, along with the defiant attitude to sex, saw some critics bemoan the film as mere superficiality; a critique that has dogged the Wachowskis through to Cloud Atlas, though it’s clear that they practise a deeply sophisticated craft that delivers on all their bold subject matter.
They also pick a killer cast. Gershon almost sells the movie on her own in her performance as a calloused jailbird. She’s sly and cynical, but ready to embrace what she’s been deprived of for years, that being not just physical intimacy with Violet but the hard-won dignity of an independent life. Later, she is curiously absent from the major proceedings, either waiting patiently in the apartment next door or tied up in Caesar’s closet. The film largely depends on male agency through Caesar, but the couple are always present in how they’ve manipulated the situation – his intuition is blueprinted, his impulses are predestined. This makes Caesar a tricky role to play, because while anyone can find a character actor who nails the dumb and culpable type, he can’t be too much of a stooge lest the second half become insufferable. Thank God for Joe Pantoliano then, who plays Caesar with a lackadaisical wit even when bugging out and turning the furniture upside down. If you enjoy his antics as the snarky Cypher in The Matrix, know that this does him even greater favours. The real winner of the movie, though, is Jennifer Tilly. Her later appearances in lesser fare like Bride of Chucky and Family Guy wouldn’t give high expectations, but she slays it as the resident femme fatale. More than just being a seductress, her vocal inflections alone allow her to slip between different guises without breaking the core of the character we get to know with Corky. She’s manipulative in a deft and sardonic way, and it’s sad that she hasn’t taken on such a great role since.2 All three work together in a terrific dance of character dynamics, making the film that much more of a blast as it speeds toward the finale.
Also elevating the film beyond genre fare is the motif of tight spaces. All of the film is set in and around the apartment building, save for one scene in a gay bar where Corky fails to find companionship. The Wachowskis themselves have commented on how the central characters are caught in both spatial and figurative traps, paralleling members of the LGBT communities at various stages of their sexual self-determination.3 This is enriched further by an invocation of socio-economic factors that mirror the oppression felt by the romantic leads. Corky is persistently reminded of her debt to the tenant of the apartment she’s working in, and how her freedom is actually a persisting servitude to factors that dictate her life, both by choice and by others’ demand. She euphemises her felony as a “redistribution of wealth” to lay strangers, and Violet regards her sex with gentleman callers as pure work. Both are strategies to try to alleviate the strain inflicted by their respective dictating factors. This is a deeply considered yet seamless representation of the diverse web of social influences on the lives of LGBT people, and their capacity to change them.4
While fans of the Wachowskis’ other work will find a uniquely stripped-down feel compared to their later films, there’s a couple of elements they’ll find crucially familiar, besides the bombastic title sequence. One is a sequence that cross-cuts between a future event and a present-day exchange detailing how that same event will go down, which is a trick they also pull in Speed Racer and play out on a much grander scale in the centuries-spanning timeline of Cloud Atlas. Another is the characters’ propensity to remark on choices and changing the status quo; something that The Matrix trilogy had more than enough of by its conclusion. Uniting the two is a tension within the human condition, where it can be used to predict stone-set events, yet also mould them so that the world can be changed. The fact that even their zippy genre piece is so noticeably infused with this worldview speaks to the greater value of Lilly and Lana’s careers. They may not be dabbling in cinema verite or commanding the kind of budgets that scream realism, but their heightened spectacles consistently bleed sincerity and never fail to find the new way of realising it, whether it’s juggling six genres through the tonal editing style of Cloud Atlas or capturing physical stuntwork with a six-camera rig for their upcoming Jupiter Ascending. The cinema world is better for the defiant innovation they realise with their many collaborators, and Bound is a great film made better in that knowledge. “Now that’s teamwork.”
Conor Bateman: Bound showcases some of the techniques the Wachowskis would later use in The Matrix, there’s a mini-bullet time sequence that’s the most noteworthy, but the big jump between the two films is the way each film approaches plot. Something about this film feels very clunky, as it moves into its second half it drops much of the sexual nature of its interesting but flawed opening and focuses instead on the actual nature of this heist, using a non-linear sequence that, whilst amusing enough, tends to sap almost all of the tension by virtue of its retrospective nature.
Like many “crime thrillers” of the ’90s, it relies upon sexuality as a drawcard, intertwining the vices of sex and stealing for dual titillation. The problem is, the film doesn’t really seem to be that far superior to films of that ilk; whilst the crime itself is twist-filled, it’s nowhere near camp enough to be really compelling, considering the visual style of the Wachowskis. Whilst the opening setup showed promise, the move to a conventional mafia heist narrative sans interesting genre inversions stymied my viewing experience.
At first, the opening act felt very much like a male fantasy, almost pornographic in its introduction of the lesbian relationship – their eyes lock in the elevator, they’re rooms are right next to each other, they converse only in innuendo – until came the realisation that had Corky (Gershon) been a man, I wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow in the setup. We’re so used to the sexually conquering male detective/criminal in noir narratives that we tend to overlook so much of the problems. That’s what makes the start of the film so interesting, the Wachowskis seem acutely aware of what genre elements they are subverting. The subversion is perfectly matched by a really impressive performance by Jennifer Tilly as Violet, whose breathless dialogue delivery is a perfect femme fatale accessory.
It’s a shame, then, that as we move on the film slowly becomes stock-standard. Dominic writes that Bound doesn’t have the usual “naked thematic rumination” of much of the Wachowski’s dialogue but if it’s not thematic it’s almost definitely naked genre pandering. The “crackling film noir dialogue” felt rote here, as did much of the film’s actual crime plot. There didn’t seem to be any real commitment to the nature of crime or genuinely shocking thrills, the film’s end a clear embodiment of convention, a happy ending lazily pulled from the pile of plot twists. Whilst some of the production aspects were impressive, as Dom notes above, it didn’t really do enough to draw my attention away from the apparent conventionality on show.
Lidiya Josifova: As far as debuts go, the Wachowskis didn’t rein it in with theirs – Bound is not simply an outline or a sketch of a film. The prevailing sense is that the Wachowskis had thought meticulously about the construction of the film, from its bold and decisive production design (slashes and splashes of red, as Dominic said), to the “paper-thin” walls that separate Violet’s (Tilly) apartment from the one next door, where Corky (Gershon) does maintenance work. Several aspects of the film work well, including in particular the aforementioned thin walls, which crank up the tension at several key moments in the story. Without going into too much detail, the indirect witnessing of events for one character without the ability to intervene parallels our own viewing experience. Then, the feeling crucial to any thriller or noir flick kicks in – how do the characters extricate themselves from this tangled mess?
Admittedly, however, this was a somewhat rare feeling for me throughout the duration of the film. My experience seems to have aligned with Conor’s – the film largely failed to elicit surprise, with most corners turned in the plot a given, or already anticipated. It is worth noting, though, that the film’s sense of self-containment works well at exposing the depths of the few characters it zeroes in on. Additionally, graceful, precise camerawork often speaks visually where the plot doesn’t say much – craning shots, aerial shots, tense close-ups all pull their weight here. The dynamic nature of the moving camera really adds another dimension.
Lastly, I have to digress from what Dominic and Conor believe about the subversion of convention in Corky’s character. Her place within the film bordered on a placeholder for the archetypal macho detective, with many of the genre’s accompanying tropes seemingly still in place. This seemed to only be countered, for me, by Violet’s display of wit and female agency, elevating her perhaps from the trappings of a more passive character. All in all, Bound felt more masterful as a debut in its handling of cinematic language than its intriguing treatment of convention or plot.
Felix Hubble’s response will be posted in the coming day. He apologises for the delay.