Before we get too far into this turkey, let me say this: The Wachowskis’ Bound (1996) is a pretty darn good movie with a lot of surprising twists and turns. If you haven’t seen it before, I recommend checking it out before reading any further. This review will contain spoilers.
Alright. That’s your one and only warning. Here we go.
Most people know Lana and Lilly Wachowskis from their work in science fiction, but prior to making hit movies like The Matrix (1999) and Cloud Atlas (2012), they dabbled in the neo-noir crime thriller genre. After writing the spec script for the ill-received Sylvester Stallone and Antonio Banderas vehicle, Assassins (1995), the Wachowskis focused on writing their directorial debut.
However, producer Dino De Laurentiis had mixed feelings about the concept.
“Dino didn’t want it to be lesbians,” said Lana, in an interview with Buzzfeed. “At first, he liked the idea, but then he read the script, and he was like, ‘Don’t make it lesbians. Make it a guy. It’ll be more commercial.’ We were like, ‘No. We want to do it. The reason to make it for us is because of the dynamic of the characters and what it says about our present culture.’”
Back in 1996, sexuality was much more contentious than it is today and mainstream content featuring LGBTQ+ characters was still fairly taboo. In the 24 years that have passed since Bound premiered, perceptions have shifted, but it’s important to remember the cultural climate that this movie came out in. It would have been viewed as extremely controversial. Even today, Bound is sure to ruffle feathers with some.
However, including LGBTQ+ characters in genre storytelling allows new themes and plot devices to emerge. Genre tropes can be subverted when you include different forms of sexuality in your story. It makes them more interesting and less predictable. And that’s exactly what happens in Bound.
For most of its swift, 108-minute run time Bound is a by-the-numbers heist flick, but its use of sexuality elevates the overall story into something unique. Corky, a lesbian ex-con (played to perfection by Gina Gershon), is hired to renovate an apartment. On her way in to work, she encounters mobster Caesar (a fabulous Joe Pantoliano) and his live-in girlfriend Violet (Jennifer Tilly) on the elevator. The two women share a few knowing glances and, as they all exit the elevator together, Corky sees that the Caesar and Violet live at the neighboring apartment.
Claiming that she dropped an earring down the drain, Violet asks their landlord to have Corky come over to retrieve it, but this is just a ruse for her to seduce Corky. Before things get too hot and heavy between the two, they’re interrupted by Caesar returning home. He immediately thinks that Violet is having an affair but changes his mind when he sees that it’s a woman. Clearly, he thinks, no hanky-panky could have been going on between two women! Oh, the 90s.
Corky and Violet’s relationship continues to develop behind Caesar’s back and they eventually develop a plan to steal the $2 million dollars that Caesar has been laundering for his mob bosses. Once they put their plan into action, it quickly falls apart, and they’re all in a mad race to pick up the pieces before they lose their lives.
Bound shows much of the camera work and stylish flare that the Wachowskis would become known for. Even though it’s a crime thriller, the camera moves as if it were a horror movie. The camera glides and it goes through walls; there are low-angle shots and extreme Dutch angles; and the color palette is desaturated and Matrix-esque. As a directorial debut, it’s astonishing.
At the time of its release, Bound was often compared to the early work of the Coen Brothers. In particular, reviewers noted the many similarities to the Coen’s neo-noir Blood Simple (1984) and to the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Quentin Tarantino. But I think these comparisons are an oversimplification. Sure, Bound is violent, sexy, and one helluva thrill ride, but it’s willing to take additional risks with its fairly honest portrayal of lesbian characters.
“We think that not only gay people or queer people live in closets, everybody does,” said Lana, in an interview from 1996. “We all tend to put ourselves into these boxes, these traps. And so what we tried to do is we tried to define as many of the characters through the sort of trap that they were making out of their lives. Getting out of the closet was meant to take on a bigger meaning than just the typical gay meaning.”
Modern TV and movies are still grappling with the use of sexuality. In a market where half the country will vilify your creation for having a diverse cast of characters, filmmakers have to ride a difficult line between commercial appeal and reality. How far can they push the envelope with conservative audiences and still be accepted? For instance, shows like Stranger Things have lesbian characters, but it’s made a non-issue—in terms of the overall story—for better and for worse.
From what I can see on social media, most modern conservatives are upset by the “normalization” of LGBTQ+ relationships in mainstream media even though the Marriage Equality Act has been the rule of law since 2015. Anything outside of one man and one woman, is viewed as “wrong.” As a straight person who believes consenting adults can love whomever they want, I think that that’s a severely limiting attitude and creates a mundane vacuum for creativity and new stories. Obviously, there are many other issues at play here, but as someone who loves stories, I want them to be diverse, interesting, and outside of my normal scope. I want them to challenge me and help me see things from other people’s perspectives.
Bound dared to include lesbian characters in a typically heteronormative genre and made their sexuality a central issue to the story. Yes, there are other examples of this, but it’s still, as unfortunate it is to say, noteworthy. Especially, for a movie made in 1996.