One Step Ahead of the Crowd: Bound and the Stealth Storytelling of the Wachowskis

Quentin Norris
May 20 · 10 min read
Photo by Saskia van Manen on Unsplash

“Sex and crime forever” boasts the first promotional one-sheet for 1996’s Bound, the feature film debut from the Wachowskis. Awash in blue light, Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly stare smoldering holes into the hearts of any horny teenage boy who happened to cross the poster’s path. Another poster reads “For Money. For Murder. For Each Other.” This time, Tilly and Gershon are tied together with badly photoshopped ropes, literally bound to one another, cheek to cheek, that same steamy glare fixed on potential audiences, a siren song to those who seek out as much sex and violence as they can possibly get in a film, for Bound was released in a Post-Tarantino world, and if anyone wanted to successfully market a quick-witted thriller, their best bet was to ramp up the pulp as much as possible in the marketing, even if it had to fabricate a bit in the process.

Bound was marketed purely as a boiling-hot erotic thriller, filled with all the violence, nudity, and sex a teenage boy could dream of, and his parents try desperately to keep out of his hands. At first glance, Bound is nothing more than forgettable, by-the-numbers genre junk, the kind of stuff that is picked up at a gas station for three dollars, and played in the basement at sleepovers solely for the possibility of seeing something titillating. With this film, The Wachowskis (known as the brothers at the time) could be seen as the patron saints of those horn-dog high-schoolers. But even though Bound is undeniably erotic, and filled with pulpy violence, there is so much more going on underneath the surface of the film, thoughts and ideas on identity, that are woven deeply into the fabric of the entire career of the Wachowskis, who made the film for an audience much wider and diverse than simply prepubescent males.

To subject Bound to the confined box of just a simple, erotic thriller is a huge disservice to a film that employs tons of cinematic tricks and tools to tell their story of revenge and violence. The Wachowskis used their years of pop culture absorption to create a film that is a hodgepodge of pastiche and genre that also still functions perfectly as a complete story. Roger Ebert was onto something in his review for the film, saying “Bound is one of those movies that works you up, wrings you out, and leaves you gasping. It’s pure cinema, spread over several genres. It’s a caper movie, a gangster movie, a sex movie, and a slapstick comedy.” In more ways than one, Bound achieves what many homages to classic cinema genres attempt and fail. It successfully recreates a story structure from the past, and breathes new life into it, ushering it into the modern day.

Bound was received warmly at its release, and time has only continued to be kind to the film, as the Wachowskis have proved that Bound was no fluke, by continuing to make a career out of crafting and structuring genre pictures that appear either pulpy or just sugary on the outside while having much more complicated personal stories going on underneath the surface. That personal aspect has become more prominent through the years, as the Wachowskis have changed, came out as transgender women, and transitioned into their true selves. The audiences may not always be on board with the ideas inside the Wachowskis’ heads, with either cold or lukewarm responses to films like the Matrix sequels or Jupiter Ascending at the time of their releases, but maybe that’s just the way the Wachowskis like it, always one step ahead of their audience, just waiting for them to catch up.

The story of Bound’s conception and production is the kind of fairy tale that almost any wide-eyed film school kid dreams of, slowly climbing the industry ladder until they were able to create their own passion projects. In the early ’90s, the sisters were just college dropouts who had started their own painting and construction business. Through connections and a little elbow grease, they were able to start writing comics for Marvel’s early horror imprint, Razorline, which led to their first Hollywood gig, a writing credit on the 1995 Richard Donner film, Assassins. The script was completely re-written by Brian Helgeland, and the siblings were unsuccessful in attempting to remove their names from the credits in the film. In that moment, they knew they had to direct their next screenplay as well as write it, otherwise, they would never make it in the industry.

The greatest obstacle in bringing Bound to the big screen was also the element that helps Bound’s narrative so important and timeless, the homosexual love story at its heart. The Wachowskis approached multiple studios whose response to the script was “If you change Corky to a man, we’re really interested.” It certainly would have been easy to simply rewrite the character of Corky as a man. The film would not have lost any commercial appeal, and its status as a pulpy thriller would have remained intact, but the Wachowskis stuck to their principles. They knew what made the film stand out, and what elements of the story needed to remain the same. Their response to those studio notes always remained the same: “That movie’s been made a million times, so we’re really not interested in it.”

Bound’s story begins with Corky, an ex-con played by Gina Gershon, who has arrived at an upscale apartment complex to work on painting and renovating one of the apartments. The next door neighbors are Violet (Jennifer Tilly) and Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), a couple wrapped up in an unhappy marriage that Caesar, a neurotic gangster with an inferiority complex, seems completely oblivious to, while Violet is constantly looking for a way out. Violet is captivated by Corky and finds a way to flirt with her through a lost earring. That earring leads to a romance, and that romance leads to a plan, a plan to free both of themselves from the constraints that both their lives have put them in. If they’re able to steal a load of cash from the mob bosses that Caesar works with, then perhaps they’ve found the keys to escaping the mundane trappings of the walls they’ve built around themselves for so many long years. Everyone dreams of giving their lives a complete overhaul and changing themselves drastically, and just like the walls she paints over in strangers’ apartments, Corky is determined to make that change for both her and Violet.

To feel trapped, confined, boxed in, and bound by a bad hand that life deals you. This is the major theme weaving in and out of the more lurid, steamier elements of the film. Lana Wachowski is quoted in a 1996 interview saying “We had this idea about a woman you would see on the street and make a host of sexual assumptions and they would all be wrong and that sort of lent itself to this constant idea of surfaces and truth under surfaces.” In another interview, Lana lends more insight into the visual idea of being boxed in after the interviewer notes how many high angle, claustrophobic shots are featured in the film. “We think that not only gay people or queer people live in closets, everybody does,” says Lana, “We all tend to put ourselves into these boxes, these traps. And so what we tried to do is we tried to define as many of the characters through the sort of trap that they were making out of their lives. Getting out of the closet was meant to take on a bigger meaning than just the typical gay meaning.”

Lana would not complete her transition until 2008 and did not officially come out as transgender until 2012 in a New Yorker piece entitled “Beyond the Matrix,” and Lilly did not come out until 2016, but even before it became a part of the sisters’ public artistic personas they always knew it was a part of who they were. In her New Yorker profile, Lana tells a story of trying to walk in the girl’s line while attending Catholic school as a child, and being severely scolded by one of the nuns. “As a result, I hid and found tremendous solace in books,” Lana told the New Yorker, “vastly preferring imagined worlds to this world.” This stayed with them growing up, and was important to how they chose to tell their stories. Their thoughts on sexuality and identity were prevalent in all of their films, starting with Bound and continuing on to their Netflix television series, Sense 8.

When Bound was made, both sisters still felt trapped by their situations. Those feelings of repression are on display in both character development and visual metaphors, through the way Violet is abused by Caesar, or how Corky is physically bound and gagged and forced into Violet’s closet by Caesar. Audiences are lured into the film with the promise of “sex and violence forever” and not only experience a pulpy thrill ride, but also a deeply emotional story of confusion and entrapment coming from deep in the hearts of two transgender women still searching their own identities for answers.

As the Wachowskis’ careers evolved and advanced past their first feature, it is both fascinating and emotionally cathartic to watch the sisters’ emotional and physical journeys through the characters in their films and series. The journey begins with Bound, in which they are still trapped inside themselves, but there is still a light at the end of the tunnel. In the subsequent The Matrix trilogy, Speed Racer, and Jupiter Ascending, the sisters weave massive, epic tales about discovering one’s true self. They are triumphant and empowering calls to action about accepting the role in life you were always meant to play, regardless of what any powers that be may tell you. They are stories about choosing your own destiny, creating your own story, taking back your true identity, the ones stolen from all the Caesars of the world. Cloud Atlas and Sense8 take on an even more ambitious scope with their interconnected worlds, where the hearts and souls of every living person are sewn together in inexplicable ways, defying the standards of gender, race, time and space. Throughout their widely ranging tones and genres, each Wachowski film has a distinct, sincere, and utterly humanist theme worn on its sleeves about the power of identity and self-discovery.

The Wachowskis have made a career out of sneaking in narratives of identity into each project, each story growing a tad bit more ambitious with every film. While audiences seemed ready to accept Bound and The Matrix when they were released, tragically, their numbers dwindled as the subsequent Matrix sequels were released, and continued to drop as their films grew in size, scope, and ambition, the sincerity in their bloodstream growing a little more prevalent each time. In the eyes of the public, the Wachowskis began to unfairly gain a reputation as one-hit wonders, odd filmmakers who only seemed to connect with audiences worldwide once. The Matrix became their film in shiny black armor, and most general moviegoers forgot about Bound, letting it fall into cinema curio obscurity.

This fall from grace in the public eye feels more unjust than any other filmmaking team working in Hollywood today. I cannot think of another duo more dedicated to the people of the world than the Wachowskis. Their narratives are anti-fascist, anti-corporate, pro-community, and all about love and fighting for that love, tooth and nail. Sadly, that sentiment is ignored by many, deciding to choose the tongue in cheek cynicism of modern director-for-hire blockbusters that don’t try to challenge any world-views rather than the honest curious philosophizing of the two sisters.

But if time can be kind to any filmmakers, I have faith that it will be so to the Wachowskis. Like Orson Welles before them, their curse does not lie with an inability to make good films, but a hyper-advanced sensibility that is miles ahead of the audiences sitting down in the dark to watch them. Many of their films after The Matrix have already started to gather new fans and re-evaluations from cinephiles who turned their noses up at first. It’s easy to forget sometimes, but one of the most important films in cinema history were the ones that were laughed out of theaters when first released, and it’s not about how your film is received on the night of the premiere, but what audiences are saying about your film decades after the release. The Wachowskis and their stealth narratives don’t need to connect with everyone, just the people that need to hear them. These stories speak to the kids going through the same things Lana went through as a child. The Wachowski Renaissance is on its way, and cinephiles who have made up their minds about the filmmakers should think about a reassessment.

The career trajectory of the Wachowskis should not surprise anyone. They made their statement loud and clear like a single shot from a revolver when they burst onto the scene in 1996. Bound is an emotional, heartfelt, character driven story, all wrapped up in a film noir that would make Billy Wilder himself blush. Their intentions of telling personal, close-to-the-heart stories nestled tightly inside larger than life genre pieces ranging from science fiction to cartoon adaptations have never been compromised, even in the face of losing credibility as “cool” filmmakers. They are still filmmakers for the people, even if the people can’t keep up with how fast their ideas run. They’ll be there waiting for us when we finally catch up, and hopefully, they’ll have even more stories to tell.

Photo by Adrien Converse on Unsplash

Works Cited

Quentin Norris

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Writer, filmmaker, and comedy performer living in Austin, Texas. I write fantasy, horror, flash fiction, and film/television/music reviews.