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Thursday, March 20, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Bound (1996)

Director: Andy & Larry Washowski
Starring: Gina Gershon, Jennifer Tilly, Joe Pantoliano

The Wachowskis hit it big worldwide with The Matrix, but it’s the film they made three years earlier which holds my deeper admiration. Part noir, part camp, part “look-what-I-can-do” stylistic romp, and all entertainment, Bound is one of the best – and most underrated – films to come out of the 1990s.

The set up: Corky (Gina Gershon) has just been released from prison and moves into an apartment next door to Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and her mobster boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano). Violet sets her sights on Corky and soon they’re plotting to steal the mob’s money and pin it on Caesar, effectively removing him from their equation while putting themselves on easy street. They come up with a plan that can’t possibly go wrong… until it goes horribly, horribly wrong and suddenly Corky and Violet aren’t looking to get away with the money, they’re just looking to get away with their lives.

The film walks a tightrope of style and tone. This is a visually stunning film in terms of both cinematography and direction - there isn't a shot that the Washowskis don't make the most of. The important thing is that the style doesn't distract from the story, but instead serves to enhance it, helping to heighten the natural instensity of the story by underscoring certain actions and events (mostly acts of violence). In terms of tone, this is a film that could go very wrong very easily if the filmmakers didn't have such great command and control over the material. Bound consistently goes right to the edge - creeping towards that line that separates the serious from the ridiculous - and then restrains itself, pulling back ever so slightly. It’s fortunate that Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon are two actresses who know how to do camp properly, because the over-the-top moments wouldn’t work if the two played it with an undertone of “God, can you believe I just said that?” nor would they work if played completely straight. It’s a very fine line that’s being walked here. The best example of this comes during the scene where they’re plotting and Corky expresses reluctance about working with a partner because she doesn’t want to get screwed. “I wouldn’t screw you,” Violet says, and the two cock their heads towards each other to give each other a look while the camera swoops in to catch it up close. It’s funny and sexy and silly all at the same time.

Putting Gershon and Tilly together in these roles is simply inspired, with Tilly playing the ultra-girly femme fatale, and Gershon as the Hollywood (read: heterosexually acceptable) version of butch lesbianism (honestly, though, how butch can you be with a name like Corky?). They have fantastic chemistry and each has a great handle on her character, especially Tilly. Violet is a character who is consistently underestimated because of her va-va-voom appearance and her high-pitched voice. “This is the part where you tell me what matters is on the inside, and that inside of you there’s a little dyke just like me,” Corky says challengingly when Violet tries to talk her into bed. “No, she’s nothing like you. She’s a whole lot smarter than you are.” And it’s true. In fact, while Violet may initially seem like little more than an accessory for Caesar, she is in fact the smartest person in the whole movie, the one who seems to have the best grasp of the entirety of the situation even as it continues to shift and change and mutate. She herself is always shifting and changing, not only dressing differently when she’s with Corky as opposed to Caesar, but also speaking in a lower register. Of all the characters, she's the one most capable of adapting to new sets of circumstances.

The shifts and changes faced by Violet and Corky come in the form of a story that is incredibly well-plotted and executed by the writers/directors. They build up to the crime slowly, letting Violet simply prowl around Corky for a while before the plotting is set in motion. We see their plan unfold as they’re discussing it – they’ve thought out the steps, but left little room for the life’s little accidents, as they discover when the plan is actually set into motion and people start dying left and right. Violet and Caesar’s bathtub fills with bodies, police show up and are stalled just long enough to cover up the massive amount of blood on the floor, and then Caesar gives Corky ten chances to tell him where they money is hidden – with each missed opportunity resulting in Violet loosing a digit. This section of the film unfolds at a fast clip, but not so fast that you can’t keep up with it – it runs at an intensity to match the growing confusion and fear being experienced on-screen.

The portrayal of women, specifically queer women, in this film is unusual when you consider that it was written and directed by two men (although, perhaps not, since one of the brothers is transgendered). Not only does it center on two lesbians – neither one of whom ends up with a man in the end – but it centers on two “bad” girls. Bad girls and lesbians hardly ever get a happy ending in mainstream/male dominated cinema – in fact, both usually end up dead because they’re threatening in some way to the male psyche. But here, nearly all the men are killed and Corky and Violet are left together.

“You know what the difference between you and me, Violet?”
“Me neither.”

And then they kiss and ride into the sunset in Corky’s red pick-up truck. Brilliant.

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