Tom Jolliffe looks back at Bound, the Wachowskis’ directorial debut, which remains essential neo-noir.
They had written a Sylvester Stallone action picture. Assassins would prove somewhat underwhelming to critics and disappointed at the box office. It would undoubtedly have been a money spinning gig for Lana and Lilly Wachowski but they would be left dissatisfied with the handling of their screenplay which didn’t retain the same complexity by the time it had been put to screen. Even so, it had enough to be enjoyable to fans, and that one remains a film I’ve always found underrated. They’d had their start though, even if it never quite suggested the potential for the siblings to become a pop cultural phenomenon before the century was out.
Their next film also marked their directorial debut. This was a world away from a big budget Stallone fest. It was a stripped back, low budget neo-noir. It didn’t have marquee names, and without courting some infamy prior to release (for an array of reasons) may have seen itself heading to video shelves first. The eye catching qualities of a film so stylish and assured, shone through though. The film quickly became something of a cult favourite.
I recently re-watched Bound. It’s still an inspired film that feels delightfully intimate in scale, wholly focused on a kind of Hitchcockian (by way of Clouzet) tale of double cross and extra marital scheming. At 25 years old it plays fresh. It feels cool and modern. It hasn’t aged, aside from the cut of Joe Pantoliano’s double breasted suit and baggy strides. As they would become known for in The Matrix a few years later, the Wachowskis have a tight grip on a screenplay that meticulously hits the right notes.
This isn’t a film loaded with action either; unable to fall back on bullet time et. al., this maintains a steady pace and is gripping from start, to frantic finish. It’s littered with enough enigma and second guessing to keep new audiences wondering just what the character motives are as a lesbian affair between a recent parolee (Gina Gershon) and a gangster’s moll (Jennifer Tilly) arcs into a scheme to steal a huge stash of cash said gangster (Joey Pants) is holding for his ‘Don Corleone.’ They steal it, implanting the unshakable idea that the Don’s nephew, who Caesar (Pantoliano) detests, stole it. The expectation is that Caesar will run, but he doesn’t, he’s predictably unpredictable. Then the timer on the cluster-fuck-bomb starts counting.
Bound courted controversy upon release. The very steamy love scene between Gershon and Tilly would become a key point of contention among critics, as well as an inevitably magnetic draw to some audiences. It was billed as significantly more explicit than it actually was in the film (as if these folk have never seen any Euro arthouse from the preceding three decades). In fact some viewers, going in expecting something akin to a Tinto Brass film, may have felt let down. By today’s standards it has been mellowed on that front. Key though, is that the film doesn’t feel gratuitous on that front, as it’s still very much a secondary element to the noir tale. Additionally the chemistry between Tilly and Gershon absolutely sizzles throughout.
So here is perhaps the films greatest strength. We have three leads, played by established and ever reliable character actors. Gina Gershon is never less than mesmerising and still finds herself in big demand. Joe Pantoliano has always proved an enjoyable antagonist too and plays Caesar with intense swagger. His unexpected shift, which surprises even his moll, is fascinating. Though she’s aware and tired of the violence that surrounds him, she didn’t expect that he’d face his issue head on, remaining to greet the Mafioso boss en-route to pick up a stash of money now disappeared. Then we have Jennifer Tilly. She’s so exceptional here it does make one wonder why she drifted out of the limelight at the end of the century.
Tilly popped up here and there, before becoming a little more synonymous with vocal roles (that unmistakable voice, lending itself as the Bride of Chucky, or Bonnie Swanson in Family Guy). We’re talking about an Oscar nominated actress here (side note, whatever happened to sister, Meg? Also an Oscar nominee). Bound might well be Jennifer’s best work (and she’s also always so magnetic to watch). Violet has the ability to manipulate, to allure, and there’s always a lingering sense that Gershon’s character may be getting lead up the garden path. Tilly plays it to perfection. Demure, innocent, sensitive, but an underlying gift in soft voiced, sensual persuasion. Everything rests on her ability to lie convincingly and to portray naivety.
The film’s assured style is what marked it up among a number of crime noirs around the time. Everyone was in on the act after Reservoir Dogs. The Wachowskis instead seemed to throwback more to the 80’s, when the erotically tinged neo-noir was very popular (Body Heat etc), as well as that 50’s/early 60’s era. The film is visually stunning, eking every bit of imaginative camera work and editing it can from a small budget and largely confined location. Never does the confined space of an apartment block feel constrictive as the camera glides from room to room, or follows a telephone call through the wires to its recipient. The punctuations of violence are wonderfully impactful too as their slow-motion speciality comes into full effect, backed up by the wonderful score by Don Davis. Everything combines to make Bound, even at 25, a near faultless slice of noir that remains the benchmark in character focused, intimate work from the Wachowkis which they’ll hopefully return to.
In large scale blockbusters, there’s a tendency to sometimes get sidetracked by the technological marvel at your disposal and redefining set pieces at the expense of interesting characters (which critics have often said of the Wachowskis’ post Matrix work). Here though, a simple twisting tale of best laid plans going awry, is superbly executed. The film’s legacy has somewhat dimmed over time, in some danger of becoming a forgotten classic. It got overshadowed by the personal lives of its directors, but additionally the huge impact of their most iconic work, and subsequent misfires in the blockbuster genre. In many ways, Bound might still be their best work.
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Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due out in 2021/2022, including, Renegades (Lee Majors, Danny Trejo, Michael Pare, Tiny Lister, Nick Moran, Patsy Kensit, Ian Ogilvy and Billy Murray), Crackdown, When Darkness Falls and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/