Review: Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s ‘Bound’ on Criterion 4K UHD Blu-ray

This is an erotic thriller where eroticism is the agent of redemption, not damnation.

BoundLana and Lilly Wachowski’s Bound, their low-budget neo-noir debut feature from 1996, is both an outlier in a filmography subsequently defined by high-concept science fiction and an ur-text for the filmmakers’ overriding interest in the power of erotic and romantic love to liberate people.

The film concerns a plot by Violet (Jennifer Tilly), the moll of a mafia money launderer named Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), to run out on her man with enough of his filthy lucre to set herself up for life. To do so, she woos Corky (Gina Gershon), her apartment complex’s handywoman and an ex-con, to act as her accomplice. But rather than simply use the woman as a patsy, Violet betrays more and more genuine interest in Corky, and the two grow ever closer as Caesar starts to piece together their scheme and things go increasingly awry.

There are two ways in which the Wachowskis immediately leave a mark with their debut. One, of course, is the basic subject matter of the film, which runs counter to decades of noir’s fraught depiction of openly or heavily coded queer characters as usually the villain motivated by repression and longing. Bound walks a fine line in introducing its characters in blatantly criminal terms (Violet’s shameless seduction and manipulation of Corky, Corky’s tough-as-nails demeanor and reference to a rap sheet) before having them pull off a scheme worthy of Billy Wilder, only to slowly humanize them through their deepening sexual connection. This is an erotic thriller where eroticism is the agent of redemption, not damnation.

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The other is the manner in which the film is shot. Throughout Bound, the Wachowskis emphasize titillating glimpses and physical contact through focus pulls and close-ups. There are intoxicating shots of lips parted barely an inch from each other, of legs entwining, and, most frequently, of hands engaged in activities both banal and sexual. One moment even amusingly “traces” a phone call by darting along the cables, looping slightly when the frame reaches a snarl in the landline. The closest point of reference for the work that the Wachowskis and cinematographer Bill Pope do here is less any contemporaneous American filmmaker of the post-Pulp Fiction boom of postmodern cool than the sensual tactility of Claire Denis.

The Wachowskis’ subsequent work leans so heavily on ambitious philosophical and humanist ideas that scenes are given over to the thematically expository, with characters speaking in fluffy purple prose. But there’s a grasp of acid wit and serrated-edge terseness to the dialogue here that’s very much in the tradition of classic noir. When Violet asks Corky why she went to prison, the latter refers to her crime as “the redistribution of wealth.” Later, as Caesar comes to terms with Violet’s deception, he asks what Corky gave her to betray him, and Violet’s voice drops an octave as she curtly replies, “Everything you couldn’t.” Such caustic moments ultimately add even more weight to the uplifting aspect of Violet and Corky’s relationship, making their bond by the end feel hard-won and mutually salvational rather than a mere quirk of fate.

Image/Sound

Sourced from a 4K restoration, Criterion’s UHD offers a massive upgrade from Olive’s 2018 Blu-ray. Images look less artificially brightened and reveal more grain, in the process maximizing the subtle balances of light and shadow of Bill Pope’s cinematography. Colors run darker yet paradoxically stand out more than they once did, particularly the spatters of blood against white bathroom tiles or the gray gangster suits. This is an exceptionally film-like presentation, and nearly as good as seeing the film on a well-maintained 35mm print. The 5.1 lossless audio sounds wonderful, with deep bass levels to emphasize how much sound bleed there is through the apartment setting’s thin walls and a delicate threading of Foley effects in all channels to heighten the paranoia of the characters worrying that any little thing can blow up their plan.

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Extras

Criterion’s disc mostly sources archival extras from a range of prior domestic and international video releases, starting with a 1997 commentary with, among others, the Wachowskis, editor Zach Staenberg, and Susie Bright, the feminist author who served as a technical consultant and something of a prototype for the modern-day intimacy coordinator for the film’s lesbian sex scenes. Bright’s status as an expert in her field but a complete neophyte to the world of filmmaking results in fascinating contributions. She provides informative breakdowns of how she coached the actors while asking open-ended and discussion-prompting questions about the technical aspects of making the movie that Pope and the Wachowskis answer in depth but in accessible layman’s terms. Occasionally, the group are supplemented by actors Gina Gershon, Joe Pantoliano, and Jennifer Tilly, who bring their own perspectives on the shoot.

Elsewhere, in a series of archival interview programs, Gershon, Tilly, Pantoliano, and Christopher Meloni share their memories of the production, and all still beam with pride over the project 20 years later. (Most amusingly, Tilly recalls aggressively pursuing the Corky part to the point of being standoffish when she first met Gershon.) There’s also a discussion between film scholars and professors B. Ruby Rich and Jennifer Moorman that focuses on the history of noir and its sexual politics as perpetuated and upended by Bound, as well as a talk between Pope, Staenberg, and composer Don Davis about how they helped to shape the film.

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The only extra that’s new to this disc is a video essay by critic Christina Newland that focuses on the manner in which the film’s visual symbolism and composition matches the revisionist slant of its screenplay. Finally, the release includes a booklet essay by media professor McKenzie Wark that places Bound in the context of the Wachowskis’ filmography, American cinema of the 1990s, and the New Queer Cinema movement of the same timeframe.

Overall

With its film-like transfer and ample extras, Criterion’s UHD of the Wachowskis’ neo-noir debut is now Bound’s definitive home video release.

Score: 
 Cast: Jennifer Tilly, Gina Gershon, Joe Pantoliano, John Ryan, Christopher Meloni, Richard Sarafian, Barry Kivel, Mary Mara, Susie Bright, Peter Spellos, Ivan Kane, Kevin M. Richardson, Gene Borkan  Director: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski  Screenwriter: Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski  Distributor: The Criterion Collection  Running Time: 108 min  Rating: R  Year: 1996  Release Date: June 18, 2024  Buy: Video

Jake Cole

Jake Cole is an Atlanta-based film critic whose work has appeared in MTV News and Little White Lies. He is a member of the Atlanta Film Critics Circle and the Online Film Critics Society.

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