After seeing Joe Pantoliano featured as the Celebrity Birthday of the Day last weekend, I felt compelled to devote a column to the film that features what I believe is his all-time greatest performance. His role as Cypher in The Matrix may be memorable, but in my eyes, his first collaboration with the Wachowski Brothers is still the best. Andy and Larry Wachowski made their directorial debut in 1996 with the ultra-stylish film noir thriller, Bound, and even though the film was highly acclaimed at the time, it almost seems to have been forgotten about nearly 15 years later. Of course, I think that may be due to the fact that they wound up creating a genuine pop culture phenomenon in The Matrix soon afterward and when a filmmaker achieves that much success, people have a tendency to forget about everything they did beforehand. You’d be amazed at how many people forget that George Lucas directed American Graffiti. Because of its enticing cover, I’m sure a lot of people probably assume that Bound is just some soft-core lesbian skin flick. In my years working at Blockbuster Video, the people I often saw renting the film were the creepy-looking middle-aged perverts who liked to complain about Blockbuster not carrying porn and tended to pick out the movies with the dirtiest-looking covers. However, while Bound definitely garnered a lot of its attention because of the lesbian angle, the film delivers so much more than that.
Bound is a modern-day film noir thriller with a storyline that’s been done hundreds of times before, which involves a couple planning an elaborate scheme to rip off a great deal of money from one of their spouses. The new angle this time, however, is that the couple are two women. I’m not sure Hollywood will ever get to the point where they decide to do a film like this involving gay male couple, but then again, at the time Bound came out, I never would have predicted that a film like Brokeback Mountain would have been so successful. Anyway, the two women in question are Corky (Gina Gershon), a recently released ex-con who’s taken on a job as a plumber at an apartment building, and Violet (Jennifer Tilly), the girlfriend of a money launderer for the mafia named Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). While it’s clear that Corky is openly gay, Violet has remained in the closet for many years and is dissatisfied with her relationship with Caesar, but when Corky moves into the apartment next door, Violet becomes smitten with her and uses this as the chance to finally come out. The movie’s first half hour contains scenes that have been seen before in many other film noir pictures, except in those cases, the Corky role would have been played by a man. Violet displays no subtlety in her attempts to seduce Corky and it leads to a genuinely erotic, but amusingly playful,near-sex scene that is soon interrupted by the oblivious Caesar.
Because of her criminal background, Violet knows that Corky may be her way out of her unhappy relationship with Caesar. It isn’t long before Caesar comes into the possession of $2 million that had been stolen from the mob and holds it for them in their apartment, so Violet enlists Corky’s help in coming up with a scheme to rip him off. It as to be carefully and subtly planned, so that Violet and Corky can escape quietly with the money while Caesar receives all the blame from the mafia. Of course, despite their new-found relationship, there’s always the possibility that Violet and Corky are simply manipulating each other for their own gain and are not above pulling a double-cross. The lesbian angle may have been the hook that helped the Wachowskis gain funding for the film, but it’s not gratuitous at all and is incredibly vital to making this plot work. The plan to steal the money would not be believable at all if the Corky character was a man because Caesar would probably figure out quite easily that Violet was screwing around on him. But because Corky is a woman, Caesar assumes the mindset of many boyfriends and doesn’t even consider the possibility that his main squeeze is a closet lesbian. While the first act of Bound almost makes it seem like the film is going to be a love triangle melodrama, it’s clever crime plot finally starts to unfold in this violent (but darkly funny) torture scene involving the character who originally stole the money. The transition between the two toilets in the adjacent apartments is just one of the many brilliant stylistic touches that the Wachowskis add to the story.
Bound is a case study in how to get the most mileage out of a very simple storyline. After the epic scope of The Matrix series, it’s quite amazing to see the Wachowskis do a movie that contains a minimal amount of characters and confines most of its story to two separate apartments. In spite of its limited settings, the plot takes an awful lot of unexpected and brilliantly clever twists and turns. Many people have said that if the film wasn’t so stylishly done, Bound would probably just qualify as a guilty pleasure exploitation picture, but since it’s such a masterfully crafted piece of work from two enormously talented filmmakers, no guilt is necessary. The careers of Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon have pretty much been on auto-pilot since this film was released, which is a shame since they’re both perfect for their respective roles and generate great chemistry with each other. Tilly has always pretty much been a one-note actress with a very limited range, but her ditzy airhead persona suits her well here since Violet is revealed as a character who’s nowhere near as dumb as she looks and it’s perfectly believable that everyone else would underestimate her. Gershon gives what is also her career-best performance as Corky and is very convincing as a smart and tough-minded criminal, but in the end, it’s Joe Pantoliano who walks away with the movie. Despite being the intended victim of the two women, he Caesar not a dumb character so, of course, their plot to rip him off does not go as planned since he has a steadfast refusal to give up. Pantoliano is just a joy to watch here, particularly in the second half of the film, as he has to play many difficult scenes where Caesar works hard to keep his cool even while he’s freaking out inside. Even though Caesar is the villain of the piece, it’s hard not to feel a little bad for him at some points, especially when he’s on the verge of a complete nervous breakdown.
One more great aspect of Bound is the appearance of one of my favourite character actors, John P. Ryan, who’s probably best known for his role in Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive series. Ryan was forced to retire from acting in 1990 due to injuries suffered in a bad helicopter accident, but the Wachowskis were able to get him to return for one last role here, and he’s wonderful in the role of a mob enforcer. I’d also be curious to know how close to home this story of repressed homosexuality was for Larry Wachowski as he would eventually get a divorce from his wife and undergo a full-fledged sex-change operation to become Lana Wachowski! All in all, Bound is one of the most purely entertaining thrillers of the last 20 years and even though the Wachowski Brothers are household names today, it’s shame that the film is so underrated and is nowhere near as well-remembered as it should be. As much as I love The Matrix, I still consider Bound to be my favourite film in the Wachowski filmography as it’s such a skilful, delightful piece of work that makes you feel giddy after you’ve finishing watching it. I kind of wish that the Wachowskis would forsake big-budget studio efforts like Speed Racer for awhile and go back and make a smaller film like this since we just don’t get such stylish, well-crafted and purely entertaining thrillers like this any more.