Bound (United States, 1996)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Bound appears to be ripe with all the elements necessary for a top-notch exploitation flick: leather, guns, gangsters, blood, and a couple of hot-to-trot lesbians. From the first scene, however, it's obvious that the writing/directing team of Andy and Larry Wachowski are aiming for something considerably higher than rudimentary titillation. And, by taking chances and twisting conventions, they have hit paydirt. Bound is among the best film noir entries of the decade; from beginning to end, it's solidly entertaining.

Ceasar (Joe Pantoliano) is a money launderer for the mob (sometimes in a very literal fashion -- watch how he cleans up a sack of bloody bills). His live-in girlfriend, Violet (Jennifer Tilly), a closet lesbian, is itching to get free of him ("I want out! I want a new life!"). She sees her chance when an ex-con named Corky (Gina Gershon) moves in next door. Methodically, Violet seduces Corky, then, after a heated sexual encounter, the two plot how to liberate Violet along with $2 million of the mob's money that's currently in Ceasar's possession.

Saying more than that about Bound would be unfair, because the plot is loaded with the unexpected. For most thrillers, I'm able to predict the so-called "surprises" far in advance, but this film's well-orchestrated twists kept me off balance. Until the final scenes, it's impossible to be sure of anyone or anything. The biggest question, which is raised by the characters and stays with us, is who can be trusted? We're never sure who's on the level and who's lying. Since the Wachowskis don't feel bound by the conventions of the genre, they freely violate our expectations. Best of all, everything that transpires in Bound makes perfect sense -- the film doesn't demand unreasonable leaps of logic to tie everything together. In that way, it's like Blood Simple and The Last Seduction.

Perhaps the most intriguing departure from the norm is the use of a pair of lesbians as the main characters. Ultimately, it's a great choice, both from a plotting and an aesthetic standpoint. Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon steam up the screen with the kind of eroticism that is rarely found in same-sex or opposite-sex couplings. From the closeups of Gershon's hands and Tilly's legs to the love scene (which is played with an undercurrent of humor), the Wachowskis understand exactly how to photograph these two to their best effect, using shadows and unusual camera angles to intensify the sensuality.

Tilly doesn't have great range, but she can do this kind of role in her sleep. With her high-pitched, breathy voice and low-cut necklines, she's perfect as Violet, Bound's femme fatale. Unlike her Oscar-nominated part in Bullets Over Broadway, this gangster's moll isn't a ditz. In fact, she's quite intelligent, and that makes her a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, Gina Gershon does an about face from her glamorous turn in Showgirls, essaying the tough, James Dean-like Corky, a professional thief who's interested in cleaning her life up until she falls for Violet and the $2 million. Gershon, who gave one of the better performances in Paul Verhoeven's trashy T&A-fest, is excellent here, capturing our sympathy from the first reel. And Corky, like Violet, is smart.

The intended victim of Violet and Corky's plan, Ceasar, isn't dumb, either, and his refusal to act predictably fuels several scenes that are thick with tension. Actor Joe Pantoliano (The Fugitive) plays Ceasar as a normally-cool man driven over the edge when he loses control of circumstances. But, despite his growing panic, Ceasar still tries to think things through, and this makes him a dangerous adversary. Watch for how he uses the re-dial button on a phone.

From a stylistic perspective, this is a beautiful film -- a color motion picture with black-and-white sensibilities (as is often true of the best modern film noir). Shadows and light are used to good effect. The Wachowskis, along with cinematographer Bill Pope, have crafted a number of artistically superior shots. In one instance, we see a droplet of crimson fall into the clear water of a toilet, then slowly diffuse. In another, we see hundreds of $100 bills hanging by pins from a makeshift clothesline. Then there's a scene where blood spatters a small pool of fresh white paint.

From the opening moments, ripe with sexual tension, to the closing shot, Bound offers an edge-of-the-seat experience. No noir thriller since last year's The Usual Suspects has captured my attention this fully. (Curiously, both Suspects and Bound were released by the same distributor, Gramercy Pictures.) If this film was less adeptly-made, it might go down as a "guilty pleasure", but, considering the amount of skill and intelligence invested in the production, there's nothing remotely shameful about this particular indulgence.

Bound (United States, 1996)

Run Time: 1:49
U.S. Release Date: 1996-10-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sex, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85