I wrote in my last neo-noir retrospective review of The Long Goodbye (1973) that neo-noir films take “a self-reflexive approach to the narrative and stylistic tropes of the classical era.” This was true of most of the films in this series thus far: The Long Goodbye (1973) in its 1970s interpretation of Philip Marlowe and Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) in its subversive infusion of race into the period milieu. The odd man out, as already mentioned in The Long Goodbye piece, was our kick-off film, P.T. Anderson’s Hard Eight (1996), a film that is more classical in its approach to story and theme than its contemporary setting would suggest. Today’s film, the Wachowski Brothers’ debut Bound (1996), similar to The Crying Game (1992) before it, meets my definition of a neo-noir thanks to the simplicity inherent in subverting a standard generic convention: the depiction of the femme fatale’s sexuality is inverted. In Bound, Violet (Jennifer Tilly) only tangentially uses her sexual prowess to seduce a man, her main target is a woman.
The film’s protagonist is Corky (Gina Gershon), an ex-convict who, hoping to start over, accepts work as a handy(wo)man at a Chicago apartment complex. While on the job, Corky rides the elevator with the couple living in the apartment next door to her base of operations: Mafioso Caesar (Joe Pantoliano) and his other sidearm, Violet. When Caesar leaves to perform his dirty deeds for Don Gino Marzonne (Richard C. Sarafian), Violet summons Corky to her apartment to help retrieve a missing earring that has fallen into the drain of the sink. Violet flirts with Corky and the two later have sex. During their post-coitus moments, Violet drops the bombshell on Corky: Caesar is the money launderer for the mafia and while they have been together for five years, she longs for a better life.
That opportunity arises when Violet witnesses Caesar torturing a fellow hood who has stolen $2 million dollars from Gino. Upset by the violent torture but assured that Caesar will find the money, Violet recruits Corky to help with the con. Essentially, Corky will make off with the suitcase holding the money while Caesar is distracted by Violet. In turn, Violet will tell Caesar that she saw Caesar’s nemesis/Gino’s son, Johnnie (Christopher Meloni), run off with the money and Caesar will be forced to go on the lam, knowing full well that Gino will blame him over his own blood. Of course, complications that I will not describe ensue for the two lesbian lovers and there’s a whole lot of blood, white paint, and good old fashioned suspense.
One of the more difficult things about writing these retrospective reviews is the desire to both introduce an unfamiliar viewer to what is quite possibly an overlooked film while providing a level of analysis that appeases those readers who are already familiar with it. This balancing act is complicated when dealing with any type of film that involves plot twists and mystery, which of course are key traits of any type of noir. That said, I’ll deal with the forthcoming analysis both specifically and vaguely in order to try to split the difference. As I noted in my introduction to the review, the key neo-noir trait of Bound is its subversion of the protagonist/femme fatale relationship by keeping the femme fatale but replacing the traditionally male protagonist with a woman (Note: Is there a film noir with a female protagonist who is roped in by a homme fatal? Maybe House of Games?).
The film still goes through the usual steps of the protagonist being conflicted and skeptical about the femme fatale’s alliances. For instance, both Corky and we as viewers wonder if Violet is really interested in running off with her. After all, couldn’t their sexual relationship simply be Violet’s means of pinning the theft on this fresh out of prison ex-convict, leaving the heterosexual couple the ability to run off with the mob’s money? That’s essentially the role the femme fatale plays in every other film noir, including Double Indemnity (1944), its spiritual clone Body Heat (1981), and The Killing (1956). By drawing on the genre’s history of forcing both the protagonist and the viewer to question the motives of the femme fatale, we’re also forced to reflect on a larger question: Is Violet truly gay? If Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) is a noir about race (not ABOUT RACE, at TK noted), Bound is a film that encourages us to think about the heterosexual norm in most Hollywood film and the end result of that process is rather stunning.
Of course, Bound also implies an equally important factor about neo-noir’s relationship to classical noir: how does the ability to be explicit in depicting both sexual acts (gay or straight) and violence change the genre? Maybe I’m making Bound to be more of a meta-generic conscious film than it really is, but the reflexivity the film takes towards those classical conventions, like the previous two entries in this series, forces us to be made aware of the generic legacy neo-noir needs to negotiate. I would argue that the oscillation between explicit sex and violence in many neo-noirs (A History of Violence is another prime example) serves that legacy described by scholars Raymond Borde and Étienne Chaumeton as the aim of film noir: to create a specific alienation. In Bound, we as viewers (probably more so the male viewers, maybe lesbian viewers) are treated to the beauty and eroticism of Gershon and Tilly’s relationship while being forced to acknowledge the comic but grisly violence of the lifestyle they have chosen (the criminal lifestyle, not that of their sexual preference). By the end of the film, there are answers to many of the questions I begged above and a resolution that tries to address the critique that the whole inversion that the film is founded upon provides nothing but erotic sensationalism.
I’m not sure as a straight male that I’m the writer to answer if the film is completely successful in addressing that critique. Yes, Violet and Corky are lesbians who engage in sexual acts that are staged for our viewing pleasure, which does provide a certain degree of sensationalism to the film. Yet, there’s more to their relationship than sex, which ultimately lends the relationship a human element that normalizes their relationship and provides the story with some meaningful stakes. In any case, Bound obviously leaves the cinephile with a lot to chew on. While I’ve only scratched the surface on the pleasures the film has to offer to the noir literate viewer, the film also contains some virtuoso camera moves and some fine performances by the three leads. While the Wachowskis hit a rough patch with the latter two entries in The Matrix Trilogy (1999, 2003) and Speed Racer (2008), they lit the screen on fire with Bound.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. He has previously written for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and UWM Post and is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.