At around 18 minutes in Bound, one of the more explicit lesbian sex scenes to appear in an American-made movie appears, and for many people, the rest of the film does not exist. Yes the scene is very, very naked and sweaty, but it’s one, remarkably contextual scene that plays in a spectacular crime thriller.
Bound is the first feature film of The Wachowskis, proving they had the cinematic clout to then go on and make The Matrix. It is a low-key, stylish, gripping film, that deserves much more notoriety than just for its sex scene.
Corky (Gina Gershon), has recently been released from prison, and has found work renovating an empty apartment. It happens to be next door to the apartment of Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). Caesar works for the mob, and Violet is his trophy lady. Corky meets the pair in the elevator of the building, and it’s immediately apparent that the sparks are a-flyin’ between her and Violet.
The two soon begin a relationship, and after Violet lets some of her seductress façade fall, it becomes subtly apparent that she’s actually quite frightened of being a mobster’s girlfriend. When Caesar and his goons go a bit too far in extracting information from a man who was friendly with Violet, she and Corky conspire to steal a lot of money from Caesar, leaving him as the scapegoat for the mob.
What starts out as a simple plan goes awry when Caesar doesn’t react the way they thought he would, and through a lot of quick-planning and tense sequences, the two women try to keep the plan on-track, despite the arrival of Caesar’s mob bosses, and his ever-increasing frenzy of panic.
There are a few elements that set Bound apart from other crime-thrillers or erotic-thrillers. Firstly, on a stylistic and narrative level, the film is a low-key plot, executed with incredible class and style; it’s not a tale about the entire Chicagoland mob, it’s not about a guy who only ever wanted to be a gangster, it’s pared down to two women, the guy they’re ripping off, and his superiors – it would almost work as a stageplay.
But having such a low-key story doesn’t mean that it’s a low-grade film – the Wachowskis imbue every shot with a precise, determined style, they weave a gripping story, and they know how to wring every last iota of tension out of a sequence to leave you feeling breathless. It makes a great companion piece to Blood Simple for its masterful tension alongside sumptuous style. The framing and composition of each shot makes it one of those movies that you could pause at any time, and frame the resulting picture as an artwork.
Secondly, Violet and Corky are not a couple designed for the male gaze. That they are lesbians is integral to the story, and it’s a story about them, not just an excuse to have a bit of steamy girl-on-girl action on screen. If anything this is a film made to appeal to a lesbian audience – there’s no access point or sexual-fantasy-character for a male viewer to insert himself into the film, and it’s about these two women and how they relate to each other rather than to the audience watching them; though trying to categorise the audience appeal of the film’s sexual content seems detrimental to describing the movie overall.
I don’t say that to diminish the relationship at all; I would class this as one of the few genuinely erotic erotic-thrillers, because in the company of the likes of Basic Instinct, Sliver or Jade, this is genuine and accurate, unlike the latter films, which simply have a lot of sex scenes in equal measure to their crime narratives. Violet and Corky care deeply about each other, and the film goes out of its way to establish their relationship as real and passionate, so when the sex scene does roll around, it’s a significant moment in their relationship, not just another beat in the story.
Thirdly, there’s no real sense of moral grandstanding to the film; all the characters are bad people, or at best, not good people (which is not to say they’re unlikeable), and so it becomes a story watching people who are operating on different levels of morality and fairness and how the situation changes when things go awry. It’s not a story about right and wrong, but one about getting what’s deserved. For instance, Violet considers herself a lesbian, and says that she doesn’t have sex with men – Corky calls her out on this, having heard her and Caesar through the walls, and Violet simply classifies it as ‘work’ – she holds no scruples about using sex purely for her own advantage, but in the company of an ex-con, there’s no mention from either of them that they are any more upstanding than the other.
It’s also very darkly funny at points, and not in a distracting way; some films try to add comedic elements to an otherwise serious story, and it can take away from how much the audience invests in the plot. Not so here, where the tone of the film walks a fine line between high-concept and absurdity, and knows the exact right moments to jump either side of that line in varying degrees of subtlety.
There’s not a performance to fault in the film either. Gershon is on top-form, and this was a welcome return to credibility following the disaster of Showgirls, conveying the right sense of ex-con toughness, as well as a warm, protective side when she’s dealing with Violet. Tilly plays Violet with an astounding precision that works so well you don’t know it. Through Tilly’s performance, you ask, ‘is Violet cunning, manipulative, seductive, duplicitous, frightened, determined, brave or powerful?” and the answer is “yes.” Pantoliano is also fantastic as Caesar, and although he can be quite a polarising actor, his frenetic-wiry-headcase shtick is perfect – it’s both pitiful and intimidatingly unpredictable at the same time.
Also on show are Chris Meloni (with more hair than his time on either Oz or Law & Order SVU) as the dim-witted son of the mob boss, stupid and oafish without making it a caricature, and John P. Ryan as Micky, the cool, calm and coldly efficient enforcer of the mob.
Bound is not just a crime movie. It’s not just a lesbian thriller. It’s not just an erotic thriller, or a dark comedy, or a “simple plan” movie. It’s all of those things and more, and a fantastic, highly recommended watch.