Viking Night: Bound
By Bruce Hall
February 24, 2016
Corky (Gina Gershon) is an aspiring ex con, good with her hands, and struggling to make a living as what would once have been called a “handyman.” But we all know by now that a woman can do anything with her hands that a man can do, and sometimes better. This is of particular interest to Violet (Jennifer Tilly), who lives with her wealthy boyfriend Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) in the apartment next door to where Corky is working.
They wouldn't seem to be much of a match. When Corky isn't filling holes in drywall or snaking chunks out of drains, she enjoys drinking, casual sex with other women, and nursing a persistent streak of nihilism. Violet has no need for a job, and spends a lot of time alone in her well-appointed flat, doing whatever bored rich people did with their time before HDTV was invented...
...Like dropping a diamond earring down the drain so the girl next door who looks like Steven Tyler and Joan Jett’s love child can come fish it out for you. Corky doesn't seem surprised, and we shouldn't be, either. The girls spend the first 10 minutes of the film making eyes at each other. Gershon plays coy, while Tilly purrs coquettishly, like an idling Porsche that begs for a driver.
But none of this is gratuitous; Bound is perfectly cast, and it's with a definite purpose. Before peaking early with The Matrix, Andy and Larry/Lana Wachowski made their directorial debut with this film, and they devoted considerable effort to transform what might have been a very conventional, forgettable story into something much more intriguing.
Corky and Violet are gay, but it's not a gimmick. Their relationship is part of a larger theme, one where the film’s main characters are forced to confront the fact that they've become imprisoned by their life choices. Corky has just finished a five-year stretch in the slammer, while Violet has spent the same period in an abusive relationship with Caesar. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention that Caesar is a money man for the Mob who likes to torture people?
Of course, these are movie mobsters, which makes them essentially cartoon characters, but that's not the point. There's a shelf life on a mob career, and the deeper you go, the harder it gets to avoid the traditional retirement ceremony of being brutally murdered. This makes Caesar and his friends very violent, paranoid people, and Violet decides to approach her new lover for help.
They hatch an elaborate escape plan, but the price of failure is a pair of cement shoes, and having themselves met under less than honest conditions, can they really trust each other? It's really no different from any other romance. Eventually you make a choice about someone; do they love me, or is this a relationship of convenience? As Corky points out, casual sex and major theft require two very different levels of trust. And when your story revolves around what happens when life leads you down dead ends, trust is a big part of the equation.
And for me, that’s what really lends Bound momentum. Early in the film, Caesar and Violet are present when one of Caesar’s peers is confronted over stealing, while Corky listens on the other side of the wall. In that moment, I kept thinking that no matter how good Caesar is at his job, the only guarantee is that sooner or later, he’ll be the one getting his teeth knocked out. How can he trust the men he works with, knowing they’ll one day be coming for him? And for that matter, how much can they trust him? The entire process of being a mobster seems to be putting the screws to people until the day someone finally puts the screws to you.
For Violet and Corky, the question is whether or not you can come to love someone enough in such a short time that you’d risk your life for them. And in the context of these women being gay, it takes on added significance. While anyone can fall in love, not everyone in our world feels safe openly embracing that. It’s hard enough, under those circumstances, to know who to trust without the Mafia being involved. That’s an important thing that makes this story so much more distinctive than it would be if Corky was literally a man.
All of these things are happening in that moment, when every main character in the film is standing within feet of one another, whether they all know it or not. They’re sharing the same fear, but processing it in very different ways, and for very different reasons. Bound is full of well written scenes that rely on this kind of intensity. The relationship between Corky and Violet is one of many essential layers of tension in this story, and the fact that it’s treated seriously is the biggest part of what makes the story work the way it does.
On my list of favorite films, Bound easily makes the top 20. It’s a small, stylish noir thriller filled with excellent suspense, great performances and a very advanced sense of social context. I do think it makes some tonal compromises at the end, and whether or not that's a good thing is a matter of opinion. In at least some ways, the Wachowskis peaked early. Despite their later success, and their fearless commitment to big ideas, it's been a long time since they've made a film that did it for me the way their first one did.