Bound (1996) — Way Better, Bloodier, and Gayer than The Matrix!

Hey hey, it’s Anticipating the Registry, a new Patreon-sponsored feature where I sit down once a month and babble about movies I think oughta be in the National Film Registry! Less formal than Registering, no less thoughtful! This month, we’re championing the 1996 lesbian crime thriller Bound, because someone’s gotta tell the world the Wachowskis have something better than their famous franchise in their back catalogue! Lesgo!

(Patrons at the five dollar level see this feature a month early!)

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I’ll gladly confess a large part of my advocacy for Bound as an entrant to the National Film Registry is born out’ve spite. As someone living in the world possessed of eyes and ears and a mind through which I might process their sensory information, it’s fully understandable why The Matrix made the grade before any other Wachowski siblings project. No denying the major shift in action movies to match and copy its style, nor the enormous profile boost enjoyed by all prominent cast and crew, nor the mass adoption of bullet time across multiple media for a decade after, nor the proliferation of esoteric philosophical and religious concepts in mainstream entertainment following its example, nor the way it made everyone think all-black leather outfits were even cooler than they thought before. By all counts, The Matrix is first round draft pick for its year, right up there with Fight Club, American Beauty, and The Sixth Sense when their times come. It is ALSO a movie I personally cannot stand because I saw all the rip-offs and advances first and so cannot think of the action as anything special, and because the self-justifying “we know the truth and nobody else does so all the innocent sleeping people around us are fair game for free butchery until we accomplish our goals” talk gets deep under my skin, and because I can never get into Keanu Reeves’ take on the empty vessel act, AND because it galls me to no end that the central trans allegory of Neo’s experiences goes past the point where he affirms his identity and kicks Agent Smith’s ass by having Smith turn it around, kill Neo, and necessitate Trinity affirming a badly performed heteronormative romance to truly make him The One. I’ve my beefs with The Matrix, and while they are legion, none bug me half so much as the fact it distracts damn near everyone from the Wachowskis’ far superior debut released just three years earlier.

Bound is one hell’ve an achievement no matter how you slice it. For those not in the know, it stars Gina Gershon as Corky, an ex-con given a job fixing up an apartment in a mob-owned building right next door to Joe Pantoliano as mob tough Caesar and Jennifer Tilly as his long-mistreated wife Violet. From the jump, the picture’s firing on all cylinders to make you understand the immediate, fiery attraction and intense need sparked between Corky and Violet on their first encounter in an elevator, all lingering staring shots and actors alone in the frame listening to the near yet distant sounds of sex and catching their breath at small shifts of the thigh or hands when in close proximity. The pair lust after one another with naked abandon in private and conversation both like few other cinematic trysts I know, Violet egging Corky on with none-too-subtle hints and pushing intimate groping to the edge of getting caught when Caesar barges home, capped by a sex scene choreographed by feminist writer Susie Bright some twenty-minutes in that’s among the few truly excellent examples of the form — the sensuality of exploring another’s body pushed to extremes to leave no doubt these two are devoted to each other as physically and passionately as possible. Through it all you’ve Bill Pope’s camera creeping through the apartment of off-whites and grays, any indications of sex exploding from the drab surroundings whether in Corky’s stripped down workspace or Caesar’s luxurious yet restrained housing, Don Davis punctuating each step towards the lovemaking with edge-of-your-seat-encouraging music. In less than a single act, Bound manages a believable whirlwind romance between two women who just know this is right to unimpeachably successful results… and it’s not even into the best stuff.

What pushes the movie into “this should be preserved as one of The Great American Movies” is the way the Wachowskis evolve and mutate this passion following the high-quality opening act. See, the main plot concerns Corky and Violet trying to swindle Caesar out’ve a suitcase of mob money he’s handling after a psycho fellow tough splattered a squealer’s brains all over the bills, Violet being dissatisfied with playing the subservient mob wife and Corky unable to resist the chance to plan a risky heist with someone who Gets her. Never minding the sequence which convinced me this was a great movie the first time round where Caesar literally launders the money with an ironing board and clotheslines and everything, Pantoliano’s performance as centerpiece of a table loaded on tense filmmaking makes the whole thing click beautifully. Presented as a man who’s aggressive but easily spooked into predictable behavior, he’s written to unexpectedly grope his way towards a parallel mental track as Corky and Violet in the middle of his freak-out after finding the money replaced with newspapers, plot his own counter-plan against the mugs he’s sure are setting him up, and then continue doing so as he strikes too aggressively and new players enter the scene, repercussions piling higher and the blood flowing freer. Pantoliano carries it off with astonishing aplomb, rising and falling with the tempo of his character’s paranoia, sneering with obvious disdain for his fellow mobsters when they arrive at the apartment, erupting with outrage when he thinks he has the better hand, processing what he’s just done in silent shock when he makes a rash move, and then into the next step of bluffing out the cops, and then intimidating Vi, and then spinning another phony story for a clean-up guy, and again, and again. His is the animalistic, aggressive passion in response and conflict to Corky and Vi’s directed and personal passion, a thinking yet wounded creature who dominates the movie with his every movement, draws you deep into the hell of his private madness and then convinces you he can get out’ve this if only everyone does exactly as he says, no matter the evidence it’ll all just fall apart again. The central, easily-controlled lynchpin of a simple plan becomes an unpredictable mass of rage and impulse in a nice suit and perfectly styled hair, a well-kempt monster of a man who spatters red all over these lovely off-white walls, who only inches closer to the truth the further he spins off-center.

And then the women carry it off in spite of all his raging and stomping and shooting. Shan’t reveal quite how, for the true joy is watching the exact particulars as Corky and Violet navigate Caesar’s violent tendencies and push the right buttons to buy themselves a little more time, but it is more than worth noting Bound concerns a lesbian couple who go further in three reels than most before and many after could imagine going across an entire movie, antagonizes them with a guy whose passion is machismo and brute cunning and purest disdain for anything he can’t beat into compliance, brings them to a point where both are helpless and one’s beaten half to hell, and in the end not only lets them live, it lets them win. Win by proving it wasn’t just lust at the start, it was unspoken trust and compatibility and even love that grants them focus, temperament, intelligence and patience enough to outwit and outmaneuver a raving mind eventually fully and spitefully dedicated to their destruction, a mind whose body otherwise trampled all obstacles with brutal fervor. The movie is a battle of two extremes throughout, one free to rampage and indulge stupid moves all it likes, the other existent behind closed doors and trained to live a careful, tip-toeing life, confined for much of the picture to hiding physically or emotionally while only letting the truth spill out in brief furtive telephone calls, and it’s the lesbian superstar couple who fuck over the shitty husband and his shittier criminal enterprise. Well beyond the excellent filmmaking which marks much of Bound, beyond the admirable brutality, beyond the high-caliber performances, beyond the beautiful imagery whenever a body drops or something hard and sturdy is destroyed, beyond the intoxicating sensation of waiting to see just how many more shoes can drop before the protagonists can make a move without risking a broken everything, the Wachowskis made a great movie by tuning all of this towards letting a raw, tacticle, unstoppable romance actually be unstoppable. Gershon and Tilly only make a few moves against Pantoliano, separated by long stretches of his seeming total dominance, but they are utterly devastating moves compared to the dozens of wild swings he throws out across ninety minutes of paranoid slow-motion breakdown, and so hit with fullest impact every time.

My only real compunction about recommending Bound for the Registry springs from the same origin as my desire to nominate in the first place: its lack of mainstream recognition. This was, in all honesty, a minor limited release, seven million gross over a six million budget, primarily notable in the larger cultural context for the opportunity it gave two then-in-the-closet queer filmmakers to make THE smash hit of ’99. The trend of “queer couples must die tragically” endings it so wonderfully subverts only slowed and slightly reversed decades after its release for largely unrelated reasons, and in the world of film culture since you’re exponentially more likely to find someone saying the Wachowskis influenced them through The Matrix or its maligned sequels than their lesbian crime thriller from a few years prior. To all this fussing I place before myself, I say… screw that noise. While I certainly make a big deal about the necessity of films continuing their legacy through proper market distribution and the weight of box office success in determining impact, the markers of artistic merit are not found in how many people forked over how many dollars or how many voices cheer how loudly at the mention of a work’s name. Soaring achievements in motion picture-making oft go unchampioned for years or even decades after release, the contents not changing one whit, only the context in which we receive. What matters how many film fans or Wachowski fans or whoever knows of Bound’s greatness when the film moves as it does, pumps my blood so fast when Gershon and Tilly are merely talking, chills my skin when Pantoliano unwittingly places another puzzle piece, leaves me rapt at attention when a pair of pliers wrap around fingers or a body struggles against chaffing ropes? Besides, films notable for what they DID rather than who NOTICED make the Registry all the time!

Bound is fantastic, a bloody and romantic queer crime thriller with stronger electric life in its bones and tissue than pretty much anything the Wachowskis made after. If the looks that pass between Corky and Violet as they outline Caesar’s downfall aren’t enough to earn the film a swift spot in the Registry just because it’s not so “iconic” as Neo ducking under bullets or halting them midair, then I’ll have little recourse other than to… continue submitting it through the Library of Congress’ nomination form before the mid-August deadline year after year with attached arguments about its merits as is right and proper. And maybe bang some heads against some toilets. Only if I can find some folks to film and cut it as beautifully as the match shot from clean toilet to bloody toilet in this film, though. Otherwise there’s no point.

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Got any comments in ya? Bout the Wachowskis, or queer film, or my Take on The Matrix? Leave ’em down below, and come on over to the Patreon if you can, where subscribers today get a piece about Len Cella’s pioneering Moron Movies a month early! Exclusive for one month, only five dollars!

Gargus may also be found on Letterboxd, tumblr, twitter, ko-fi.

Registering the Registry is sponsored by Adept7777 and Dan Stalcup on Patreon.

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Gargus

Gargus

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I write on the National Film Registry. Articles appear biweekly. Any pronouns will do. Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/gargus