Friday, January 30, 2015

Wachowski Reloaded, Part 2: Bound (1996)

            Countdown to Jupiter Ascending, Part 2, in which the siblings burst onto the scene like an atom bomb with their directorial debut...

With a commercially-successful movie under their belts and a handful of impressive scripts floating around, the Wachowskis found themselves in something of a hot demand in Hollywood. The project they most wanted to tackle next was an ambitious science fiction film that would encompass just about the whole of their interests, but with their disappointing experience on Assassins, the duo decided that this one had to be all theirs, as they would step behind the director’s seat to maintain creative control over the final product. The only problem being they had never directed anything before, and considering their costly sci-fi project had a script that almost no one who read it really understood, they would first have to prove themselves ready for such an undertaking by making an “audition” piece.

And thus one of the best films of 1996 was born. Bound is a movie that’s hard to believe is a filmmaker’s first, in that nearly every aspect of it is produced with such a fine, clockwork precision. Made cheap and on the quick, the Wachowskis first movie bristles with a confidence and assuredness that many filmmakers don’t achieve until well into their careers, if at all. Bound is a movie made by people who have been thinking deeply about movies and genre and just what it is a camera can do to tell a story for a very long time. There are shots in the movie that at once recall Hitchcock, Scorsese and Kubrick, while at the same time standing fiercely on their own: the opening shot, the speed-ramped tracing of the phone lines through the apartment walls, that amazing single-take sex-scene where the camera swirls around Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly (a scene choreographed by sex educator Susie Bright. If the film industry had as many prominent sex choreographers as it does fight choreographers, then surely the world would be a better place)  - each is a carefully-composed shot befitting of a film with a much higher budget and with more established filmmakers behind the lens. 

Telling a small but intense crime story, Bound is the type of movie us film nerds thrive on: a small little ditty that comes out of nowhere and smacks us right on our asses. Because while it is a film noir that keeps true to the things we love about that genre, it also completely turns said genre and its typical conventions on its ear. Film noir, at its core, is all about male emasculation - a post-WWII, last-gasp shriek of masculinity where any form of compassion (mistakenly believed to be an exclusively feminine trait) leads to ruination. The isolated, institutionalized man is always led off to his doom by the woman in noir, and as a character-type, Bound’s Corky is true to form - just released from prison, trying to stay on the straight and narrow until a slinky number in a black negligee comes knocking on the door with an eye for Corky and a mind for trouble. The only difference being that Corky is a woman herself, played to wonderfully-blunt perfection by Gina Gershon, and while the plot that transpires between her and Jennifer Tilly’s Violet unfolds in typical noir fashion, their blossoming relationship is anything but.

Anytime anyone starts naming the best LBGT movies ever made, Bound is sure to show up somewhere on that list, and it is entirely due to Corky and Violet’s relationship. Despite wearing the appropriate guise of the down-on-their-luck loser and the femme fatale that the genre requires, Corky and Violet have a great deal more complexity than any such labels would allow, Violet especially: her early scenes in the film might lead you to believe that she’ll stay true to her name, a “shrinking violet” who cries at the sight of blood and gets lead around by the hand everywhere by her Mafioso boyfriend. But if you believe that’s all there is to this woman, then “you don’t know shit,” just as Violet says herself before blowing away Joe Pantoliano’s Caesar. 

Violet successfully recruits the reluctant Corky in a scheme that will see them leave her boyfriend, his asshole boss and good deal of the Chicago mafia out of $2,000,000 that one of their associates in turn tried to steal from them in a small-scale heist with rather large personal stakes. The scenes that follow display the craft required to build such heightened amounts of tension, but the most exhilarating part is watching Violet sneakily turn the events to her advantage. Being a woman playing a man’s game, nobody expects anything out of her, and she uses their assumptions to win out in the end. Did Violet orchestrate the whole thing from the beginning, manipulating the poor sap who stole from the mob originally so she and Corky could get away scott free with $2,000,000 of mafia money? With this chick, I wouldn’t put anything past her.

            Given the genre, you might also be led to believe that our protagonists will find themselves dead or betrayed by one another by picture’s end, but that’s another well-worn rug the Wachowskis use to pull out from right under your feet, as Violet and Corky not only pull off their score and stay alive in the process, but also remain true to each other to the very end, driving off into the sunset hand in hand. Noir traditionally doesn’t have a happy ending, but by taking the man out of the equation, an ending where the girls get away with the money and each other is suddenly possible.

            With their first film out of the gate, the Wachowskis start strong by producing a bonafide masterpiece. As much as I’ve enjoyed their later, more blockbuster-y work, it is a shame that they never again tackled a smaller-scaled picture, as Bound remains possibly their most mature work to date. But the siblings are clearly not interested in repeating themselves, settling for no less than to push themselves and the medium of film further with each successive work.

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