HCR REWIND NO. 239: BOUND [US 1996]
OUT NOW ON DUAL-FORMAT BLU-RAY AND DVD, from ARROW FILMS
RUNNING TIME: 108 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Corky, an ex-con who has just finished a five-year jail sentence, arrives at an apartment building to start work as a painter and plumber. On her way up to the apartment, she encounters the couple who live next-door, Violet and Caesar. Violet immediately flirts with Corky and soon seduces her. She’s been with Caesar for five years, but he’s a money launderer for the Mafia, and Violet wants to make a new life for herself. She enlists Corky to help steal $2 million from Caesar….
It’s both interesting and a bit odd tracing the critical and commercial fortunes of those visionary filmmakers known as the Wachowski’s [formerly the Wachowski Brothers]. They basically do what, say, Christopher Nolan does: make ambitious, original would-be blockbusters, pictures that they want to make, in mainstream Hollywood, but for some reason Nolan’s films seem to hit the mark with many people and the Wachowski’s films don’t. Their total dedication to their art is truly praiseworthy, even to the point of, for instance, them mortgaging their house to fund Cloud Atlas, but in general people are not enthused with their stuff, though of course they do have their fans, myself included. Both audiences and critics seemed to like Bound, which was their first ‘proper’ project [they wrote the script for Assassins but it was much altered], and The Matrix, which followed, but then something happened between the latter film and the release of The Matrix Reloaded. The latter film, even though I personally thought it was better than the first one [you can’t deny it was more both more conceptually daring and more action-packed], wasn’t much liked and both film writers and the paying public have shown little love for their work since. I consider Cloud Atlas to be the best film of its year, but I think more people thought it was one of the worst!
I don’t know what the Wachowski’s have to do to get people to like their stuff again, but maybe they should make another neo noir like Bound, which came out amidst a wave of Quentin Tarantino-inspired crime flicks but stood out with its style and confidence and was more a throwback to film noir of the 40’s. The Wachowski’s actually wanted to make The Matrix first, but nobody would fund such an ambitious project, so they set out to make something easily, quickly and cheaply which would serve as a calling card. Even then, they had to stop the studio changing Corky from a woman to a man. Linda Hamilton was intended to play Violet but turned it down, and though Jennifer Tilly was originally supposed to play Corky, when Gina Gershon came on to read for the part of Violet, they swapped roles, realising they were more suited. Joe Pantoliano later said his role as Caesar was his favourite. Bound was shot under serious constraints, with even the original cinematographer bailing because he said he couldn’t do his job with such a small budget. It was well worth it when the film was so well recieved, and even got praise from gay organisations because of its realistic depiction of lesbians which avoided the usual Hollywood cliches, something that still makes the film stand out today. Unsurprisingly, the US version saw three minor cuts for sex [the MPAA objected to ‘too much hand-sex’] and violence, and I’m sure that this was the version that hit UK cinemas because I distinctly remember noticing a bit more, well, ‘hand-sex’ when I rented it out on video.
The chief model here is the thrice-filmed novel by James M.Cain The Postman Rings Twice, though of course that basic set-up of three people – the [usually working class] man, the scheming woman he is seduced by, and her partner who is in the way – is very common to film noir [it’s the basis of the best noir even made, Double Indemnity], and of course the twist here is that the [usually working class ma]n is a woman. Corky is as convincing a lesbian as has been portrayed by mainstream Hollywood: not troubled, not an angel, not deep down needing a man – she’s just a woman who unapologetically fancies other woman. Violet, by far the more ‘feminine’ of the two, is actually ‘with’ a man, but just considers having sex with three legged species as ‘work’ in order to survive. Her ‘dumb blonde’ act is simply something she puts on to protect her from her dodgy surroundings. The sexual tension when they first meet and Violet immediately shows her interest is considerable, and the resulting sex effectively filmed in one take rather than the usual several shots cut together [they actually moved the walls of the set to allow full movement of the camera]. Considered really daring at the time, the scene’s perhaps inflated reputation has lead to some being disappointed when they see Bound for the first time, and I suppose it’s rather tame compared to what you see now, but actually it proves that suggestion can be far more erotic than showing everything.
Of course there is a man in the story, in fact several men, though most of them are gangsters. Caeser launders money for the mob, and when a man is tortured and killed in his and Violet’s apartment [a very vicious scene this, with finger severing and so much bashing of a head on a toilet that the actor is question was actually injured], it seems that there’s some money that could be there’s for the taking if they play it right. The film becomes more of a black comedy, in fact it’s not far from being an extended Marx Brothers routine as the money’s constantly moved around, bodies pile up and gangsters and cops turn up every now and again to bother our two lovers just when you think they might be getting nearer to success. The mixture of suspense and farce is expertly balanced and despite most of the film taking place in one apartment [this would make a great stage play], the pace is so fast and the whole thing so damn fun it’s possible to barely notice the restricted setting. In true Hitchcock fashion, the film makes something like a simple ‘redial’ button on a phone seem like the most important thing in the world. And as with most Coen brothers pictures which this somewhat resembles, real danger and nastiness is rarely far away, with Caeser actually turning out to be far more resourceful than they thought, and by the way he’s no cardboard bad guy either.
The small budget is often used in to the film’s advantage, such as with the largely white, bare sets, while the direction and camerawork are very fluid and confident. The opening tracking shot to the beaten and tied-up Corky [the majority of the story is told in flashback] is so striking that it’s quite disorientating [in the best way] as you’re not sure where you are, and then there’s that later track along a telephone line where the camera seems to get caught in a knot, a good example of the playfulness of the whole affair. The lightness of touch shown in Bound [look out for the term ‘money laundering’ being taken literally!] is something that hasn’t really turned up in successive Wachowski efforts [the craziness of the underrated Speed Racer being a totally different thing altogether], though of course if you want to you can see certain things that are echoed and/or developed later, for example, seeds of ‘bullet time’ in the way a portion of one kill is slowed down. Despite obviously showing immense talent, I doubt anyone though would have expected the Wachowski’s to follow this with a big visionary science-fiction epic that would be a huge popular sensation.
Gershon and Tilly, the latter relishing the opportunity to play both the archetypal ditzy bimbo and the archetypal noir femme fatale, are a terrific couple and are believable all the way through. Interestingly, there are only a couple of brief moments when you’re not sure about Violet’s motivations: for most of the time she’s as much a heroine as Corky. Bound mostly avoids the usual pop songs that would populate a film like this in the 90’s and uses a good old dramatic score by Don Davis. His opening music immediately sets up the drama with considerable power, and the score is instrumentally creative throughout, though is somewhat lacking in the expected sexiness or indeed strong themes. Bound is still regarded by many as the Wachowski’s best work and I can’t really agree with that. I see it more as a [still very good] stepping stone to the greatness of much of their successive stuff. To my mind, the early portion is a bit rushed, and the wrap-up is too neat, though in a way the latter also plays with viewer expectations and genre cliches in the same way the film has done for much of the preceeding hour and fourty minutes. It remains an extremely assured directorial debut, clever, subversive, and very very entertaining. The film looks great on the Blu-ray from Arrow Films, the blacks, and also the occasional bits of brightness amidst all that black, grey and white, being especially striking, and the extras, which combine the ones on the DVD with new stuff, extremely comprehensive.
*High definition digital transfer
*High Definition Blu-ray (1080p) and Standard Definition DVD presentation
*Optional 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo audio (with DTS-HD Master Audio and Uncompressed PCM on the Blu-ray)
*Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
*Audio Commentary with Writer/Directors the Wachowskis, Stars Jennifer Tilly, Gina Gershon, and Joe Pantoliano, Editor Zach Staenberg, and Consultant Susie Bright
*Femme Fatales – Interviews with Stars Gina Gershon & Jennifer Tilly
*Hail Ceasar! – An Interview with Actor Joe Pantoliano
*Here’s Johnny! – An Interview with Actor Christopher Meloni
*Modern Noir: The Sights & Sounds of Bound – Interviews with Director of Photography Bill Pope, Editor Zach Staenberg, and Composer Don Davis
*Vintage EPK Featurettes (US & International Versions)
*Still Gallery Images
*Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Sam Smith
*Collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by James Oliver