One of the beautiful aspects of looking back at a first film is seeing a director take their first big risks as a filmmaker while already knowing how it turns out for them. It is dramatic irony, a narrative device the Wachowskis apply liberally across their first feature: Bound. There isn’t a character in the movie that doesn’t at one point or another lack the same information as its audience, whether it’s listening to Jennifer Tilly’s Violet and Gina Gershon’s Corky plan out their heist while we watch the events unfold simultaneously, or the flash-forward that opens the film of a tied and gagged Corky locked in the closet (real subtle), or Joe Pantoliano’s Caeser through pretty much the entire thing. With this other dramatic irony, the inevitable one the comes from looking back at anything after 10 years, you get different lenses to watch through. The most obvious one is with the perspective that the Wachowskis would soon be coming out of their own closet, and this is certainly an interesting perspective. For myself, though, looking at this well written, well directed, Coen-esque thriller back through a decade of other outings with the siblings, a different question itches at my brain: what the hell happened?
Fresh out of jail and looking for work, Corky (Gershon) takes a job for a mob-type doing work on his apartment. Here she encounters Violet (Tilly): sparks fly and sooner than you can blink a heavily mascaraed eye the two are knee-deep in an affair. But Violet is married to the mafia, or more particularly, a money launderer for the mob named Caeser (Pantoliano, played brilliantly). When Caeser finds himself in possession of $2 million of said mob’s money, Violet and Corky devise a plan to get themselves and the money out of the lives they’ve been so desperate to leave.
Post-Matrix Wachowski tends to be defined by dazzling CGI. Despite its relatively small $6 million budget, Bound still manages to accomplish unique technical feats and work the kind of visual flair that probably got the siblings hired for The Matrix. The camera is always moving; sometimes just across a room, sometimes over a room into another, almost always through some kind of wall. Stylistically one might reasonably compare it to the other great filmmaking family of the 90’s: the Coens. There are some glorious practical effects at work here too that bring Tarantino to mind. (Including one gruesome scene involving hedge clippers.) Obviously, the Wachowskis had influences, but something about it feels beyond a simple calling card deriving from whatever cinematographer was being talked about at the time.
A calling card, for that matter, was the least derogatory brand they risked being put on their film. Bound came out only 4 years after Basic Instinct and sexploitation was trendy. When your film is lead by two sexually active lesbians and it’s 1996, the audience is going to have a certain, perhaps well deserved, notion of what that film might look like. I don’t think this was a hurdle for the Wachowskis though; I think it’s an opportunity. In they’re hands, it gets a little more class. Corky and Violet’s sexuality isn’t played up for the pleasure of a male audience, nor was it the single factor that defined their story. Yeah, they’re lesbians, but that isn’t who they are. It’s a part of who they are, just like it’s part of the plot, but there is so much more to them and to the film than that. They aren’t rewarded just for being who they are, but for doing great things because of who they are; an idea that becomes a through-line of their filmography.
Expectations are the Wachowskis biggest weapons in Bound. Hitchcock always said that being a filmmaker is like being a musician, but instead of playing an instrument they’re playing the audience. The Wachowskis know where movies like this tend to go, whether its sexploitation or a cut and past crime caper, but we also know where these movies go and they’re not going to let us hold that over them. Just like Violet and Corky, we come into this plot knowing exactly how it’s going to play out, from the love scene to the scheme scene, only to watch it fall apart before our eyes. My only complaint, as I alluded to earlier, is how little I get to see this kind of Wachowskis anymore. The ones that had everything to lose and everything to gain. That took risks and won big. There is something so genuinely idealistic about their style that will always be alluring to me, but watching their filmography again I can’t help but want to warn them that they’re losing touch with that Hitchcockian skill of playing the audience. When it comes to these things, you really are just a member of the audience. Call it dramatic irony.