Aspiring film-makers take note: a love triangle, a gun, and a pile of illicit cash is as reliable a recipe for a debut feature as any. That was the scheme followed by the Coen brothers in 1984’s Blood Simple, and it worked as well for siblings Lana and Lilly Wachowski in 1996’s Bound.
The fact that the Wachowskis immediately went to stratospheric heights in their next film, The Matrix, means their debut has had the status of an afterthought even for diehard fans. Word was that Bound was only ever a stepping stone, its $6m budget – petty cash to any post-Matrix blockbuster – offered only to prove they could run a set. But watch the film now and you’ll find not only an immaculately crafted neo-noir, but also a skeleton key to the sisters’ entire career.
It begins with a classic noir set-up: ex-con Corky falls in lust with tough dame Violet, and is lured into a double-cross against Violet’s beau Caesar, a money launderer for the mob. The twist, if it is one, is that our leads are both women; Corky is played by Gina Gershon, and Violet by the husky-voiced Jennifer Tilly.
When Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) comes into possession of $2m that needs to be returned to the capo post haste, Corky and Violet plot to swipe the bag. Their plan involves putting Caesar on the hook for the missing money, thinking he’ll be dumb enough not to sense they screwed him and smart enough to go on the run and out of their lives. They only get the first part right. Instead of skipping town, Caesar digs in deeper, and the plot unfolds as a cunning pressure-cooker thriller, with all parties scheming to survive the night until the mob arrives in force to sort matters out at the barrel of a gun.
Bound stands out for the way it invests its genre tropes with unabashed romantic sincerity. Photograph: AF archive/Alamy
This sounds like a bit of a leap to the techno-philosophical kung fu action of the Wachowskis’ next films, but shut your eyes and listen to composer Don Davis’ nervy audio stings, or close your ears and clock the procession of key objects and locations – analog telephones and gloomy mid-century apartments – and you’ll register a set of stylistic seeds taking root. The comic book look of the Matrix films always generated talk, but here in a minor mode you appreciate what the Wachowskis’ graphic sensibility adds to their storytelling. Years before the much-imitated “bullet time”, the sisters were giving their gunfire kinetic visual accentuation in the form of shattering picture frames and swirls of spilt paint.
In 1996, a neo-noir with dual femmes fatale couldn’t avoid being slotted alongside that decade’s surge of erotic thrillers, like the iconic Basic Instinct (1992), which for its own dubious take on a bisexual love triangle had been picketed by LGBTQ+ activists. Such films turned sex into a plastic spectacle and power trip, motivated as much by a critique of consumerist individualism as by their makers’ mercenary sense of the American public’s appetite for vanilla kink.
But Bound stands out for the way it invests its genre tropes with unabashed romantic sincerity. The erotics of the scenario are certainly foregrounded – when Violet puts the moves on Corky by inviting her over to do some light plumbing, the Wachowskis make the image of a leaky kitchen pipe into something hilariously suggestive – but beyond the frisson generated between the leads what you really notice is that they genuinely seem to be delighted by each other. Whereas other erotic thrillers had a (sometimes self-reflexive) misogynistic tinge, Bound’s feminist implications are unmuddied – these women want out of patriarchal mob society, and the film wants them to get there.
That also makes Bound the seed for the escape fantasy that struck a chord in The Matrix. In both films we see star-crossed lovers seeking to escape an oppressive power structure that is unmistakably masculine in image, its violent enforcers incarnated as sneering goons in sharply tailored business suits.
“Love liberates all” has been the dominant theme for the Wachowskis, even behind their most monumental CGI spectacles. But realised here on the smallest scale at which they will probably ever, ever work, it comes through most persuasively.