25 Years Later: ‘Bound’ Still the Queen of Queer Cinema

As the world awaits the return of the groundbreaking Matrix film franchise in December, it’s worth taking a moment to celebrate the 25th anniversary this month of the release of Bound, the iconic debut film from The Wachowskis. While this low-budget, classic Hollywood-inspired neo-noir thriller may not seem to have much in common with the blockbuster science fiction masterpiece that was to come for the sibling directors, the artistry, themes, style and visionary genius all contained in this small gem of a film—easily one of the best films to come out of the last decade of the twentieth century—signaled that The Wachowskis were artists of immense talent and vision. Although the scale of their artistic ambition may not be easily seen in Bound, it can arguably be still considered the Wachowski’s most complete, most emotional and most personal work of their careers. And, for all it means to the world of cinema, Bound signifies even more as a representation of what art can mean in a much larger sense.

For two filmmakers who have both since transitioned, Bound continues to resonate with The Wachowskis as a film that not only established who they were creatively, but proved to be the real spark to their exploration of themes that would reflect not just their artistic inspirations, but their personal motivations as well. Bound is, on its face, a thriller inspired by the crime dramas of classic Hollywood, but by making the hero a woman, and making the romantic pairing at the core of the film two women, The Wachowskis turned genre on its head, breaking barriers and stereotypes, laying the creative groundwork for their revolutionary and visionary work to come.

But, in itself, Bound is a daring, imaginative, thrilling, erotic, intense and extremely sexy film in its own right, a film that can more than stand on its own merits as a near perfect noir crime drama that deserves to be revisited.

Starring Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly, Bound is a story of Violet (Tilly) and Corky (Gershon), a mobster’s girlfriend and an ex-con who fall in love. But, because Violet’s boyfriend is trigger-happy mobster Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), their love affair must be secret. When Violet comes up with a plan to steal $2 million from Caesar and frame the theft on one of Caesar’s mob partners (a young Christopher Meloni in one of his first film roles), she needs Corky to help her pull it off. Things don’t go quite as planned, and Corky and Violet are forced to improvise in order to stay alive and stay together.

Beyond being an exceedingly entertaining, edge-of-your-seat thriller with all the violence any true lover of crime dramas could crave, what sets Bound truly apart from all the other films in its genre is the way The Wachowskis build the characters of Corky and Violet, the way they make them three-dimensional, much more than props or tropes to further the narrative. Looking back, one could see that Lana and Lilly Wachowski saw themselves in Corky and Violet; as two women trapped in a world in which they didn’t fit, busting to get out, to express themselves, to break barriers and defy the expectations put upon them. In exploring, building and bringing Corky and Violet to life, the Wachowskis were able to find a voice for their societal frustrations, using their artistic vision to bring characters to the screen that were contrary to what Hollywood generally permits there. The result is a film that features characters that are not only groundbreaking, but stand the test of time.

The Wachowskis stood by their vision of Bound, even walking away from a studio that offered them big money to make the same movie, but with a heterosexual couple at the center, instead of two women. Knowing the movie they wanted to make and unwilling to compromise their vision, the Wachowskis instead turned to legendary independent producer Dino DeLaurentis, who allowed them to make the film they wanted to make. To make the film—and the iconic sex scenes—more authentic, The Wachowskis brought in noted feminist lesbian writer Susie Bright as a consultant, and the effect is a romance that feels deeper, and sex scenes that are much more realistic—and much more effective.

In the world of queer cinema, Bound was a watershed moment, as mainstream films featuring queer characters were still rare. Even Boys Don’t Cry, the groundbreaking Oscar-winning film starring Hilary Swank as Brandon Teena, was still three years away from existing. To have a mainstream genre film have characters in a gay relationship at the center of it was practically unheard of.

In most other queer films of the nineties, gay characters were either the butts of the joke (The Birdcage, In & Out), overly flamboyant (Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar), or the tragic and/or violent character who doesn’t get the happy ending (Boys Don’t Cry, Talented Mr. Ripley, Gia, The Crying Game, Philadelphia). But Bound breaks the mold of queer cinema, not only by being a “gay” film that isn’t actually about being gay, but by giving its gay characters a happy ending. As recently as Todd Haynes’s Carol in 2015, Love, Simon in 2018, and even Happiest Season last year, critics fell all over themselves to note the fact that these movies didn’t end tragically for its gay characters, and the gay community embraced these rare examples as signs of hope that the tide in Hollywood may be turning. And yet, twenty-five years ago, The Wachowskis were already there. Their goal was to make a great film with a great story, whose main characters just happen to be gay. No coming out trauma, no forbidden or unrequited love heartache, no self-loathing anywhere in sight. Just a movie about two people who decide to steal from the mob…who happen to be two women…who happen to be in love.

The Wachowskis don’t do it alone, however. In order for Bound to be what they wanted it to be, they needed to find the perfect actors for the roles of Violet and Corky, and there may never have been more perfect melding of characters to actors as Jennifer Tilly and Gina Gershon. Tilly is so perfectly cast as Violet it almost feels as if the part were written for her. Violet’s scheme can only work because Caesar underestimates her, and Tilly has made a career out of playing to the male fantasy–the beautiful, sexy, voluptuous, feminine, sweet and adoring woman, the one who is always there with a drink in her hand, sexy lingerie draped on her body, and few thoughts in her head. Tilly plays it to the hilt, making Violet so believable that even the audience doesn’t know where the truth ends and the act begins. As for Joe Pantoliano, who plays her baffled and manipulated boyfriend, he absolutely kills it in the first starring role of his career as the paranoid mobster whose world is falling down around him. Pantoliano has to walk a fine line to not make Caesar a laughing stock, to give his character enough charm to make us believe Violet would be with him (and even to feel a little sorry for him), while still making him violent and scary enough for us to fear for Violet and Corky’s survival. Tilly and Pantoliano have a chemistry of their own together, which is a real testament to how good each actor is.

But it is the simmering chemistry between Gershon and Tilly that sets the screen on fire. While Tilly provides the soft curves, it is Gershon’s edge that makes the whole thing work. Strangely enough, despite being famous and almost universally recognizable, she is really only known for two roles, and they came one right after the other. Gershon’s first career-defining performance was as Cristal Connors in the so-bad-it’s-good classic Showgirls (1995), Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas’s soft-core porn, balls-to-the-wall, insanely ridiculous masterpiece of camp, shlock and bad acting that literally drove its star, Elizabeth Berkely, out of Hollywood. But Gershon came out nearly unscathed from the critical abyss that everyone else associated with the film fell into, possibly because, when you watch her performance in it, it feels almost as if she’s the only one in on the joke, the only one who knew the movie they were making and plays into it instead of against it, camping it up and chewing every bit of scenery in sight.

But what may have also helped Gershon’s career survive is her very next role was Corky. Corky was as different from Cristal as night and day, but they both are imbued with Gershon’s natural strength, confidence and rawness that she brings to her characters. She is able to take Corky and turn a short character description (ex-con lesbian) and create a three-dimensional character with a full backstory and emotional baggage that lie just beneath the surface. Corky is a loner, loaded with street smarts, and sexy as hell and Gershon taps into her vulnerability as easily as she exudes her feminine machismo. Corky is cautious and pessimistic but she’s also idealistic and romantic. Mostly, she’s tough, capable and authentic. Gershon is able to create a feminine James Dean and make it her own. The Wachowskis may not be known for their casting prowess, but for Bound, they got it absolutely perfect.

In a recent reunion Tilly and Gershon did for Entertainment Weekly, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the film, the actors note that they have remained good friends since they made Bound together, which they both acknowledge is a rarity, while Joe Pantoliano calls his performance in Bound his most indelible. The Wachowskis may not have ever made The Matrix if it hadn’t been for the critical success of Bound, and they may never have been able to have the confidence to be their true selves if it weren’t for the opportunity to make this small, indie movie about subverting gender roles and breaking free from the limitations and expectations the outside world puts upon you. But, in the end, there is no denying Bound is just simply an excellent film on its own merits of story, writing, cinematography and acting that has managed to stand the test of time. It is even more powerful and relevant now, 25 years later, and most definitely deserves to be called a modern classic.

Gramercy Pictures released Bound on October 4, 1996.

Article originally published on AwardsWatch.