Andy Wachowski and Lana Wachowski are among the most ambitious American filmmakers of the last 20 years. The oral history of The Matrix’s production varies somewhat from executive to executive, but nobody denies the siblings’ commitment to their vision. Joel Silver has claimed that although they wanted to direct their sci-fi extravaganza as their debut, they had to first prove themselves by making a smaller film before Warner Brothers would invest the huge sums needed to make their passion project happen. The Wachowskis deny this narrative, however, and claim that they had always intended to establish themselves first before embarking on The Matrix, which may or may not have been conceived as a trilogy from the outset (again, sources vary). But regardless of how things really unfolded, Bound, the stunning first feature by The Wachowski Brothers (as they were then billing themselves), is clearly just as ambitious as The Matrix but in a different way.

The film is apolitical on the surface, but the Wachowskis’ straightforward, no-fuss portrayal of female seduction and companionship can be considered a statement of its own kind. At the same time, the fact that Bound is a triumph of queer cinema never sidetracks its masterfully constructed plot or turns the film into a moralizing problem play. Bound probably wouldn’t have as much trouble getting made today, but at the time, many producers insisted that the character of Corky (played by Gina Gershon) would have to be rewritten as a man before they could back the project. Although this proposed rewrite could be executed easily, thereby making the central romance male-female instead of female-female, the Wachowskis weren’t about to compromise their integrity. Indeed, despite the intentionally campy, pulled-from-the-pages-of-Penthouse tone of the first act, they manage, both subtextually and overtly, to do right by the lesbian community, making the film a big hit with gay and lesbian audiences.

Susie Bright, who served as a consultant on the film and contributes to the DVD commentary track, notes several details and undercurrents throughout the film that lend authenticity to the story and characters. The first conversation between Corky and Violet (the latter played by Jennifer Tilly, rarely better) contains some coded language, Bright says, that any gay woman would immediately pick up on. In many of these early scenes, a special attention is paid to the characters’ hands. At one point, Violet drops an earring down her kitchen sink so that Corky, who’s doing renovations in the neighboring apartment, will come and get it out. As she goes under the sink to unscrew the main drain pipe, the camera lingers on her hand, water dripping through her fingers; Violet, standing behind her, has her thighs positioned inches from her face. The sexual connotation is hard to miss.

The hand motif reaches a comic apex later on, just after the pair’s first sexual encounter. Caesar (Joe Pantoliano), a gangster with whom Violet lives while keeping her orientation a secret, returns home unexpectedly, and the lovers have mere moments to fix their appearances and pretend nothing was happening. Caesar, enraged, initially mistakes Corky for a man, but relaxes when he realizes his mistake, totally oblivious to his trophy girlfriend’s true nature. He introduces himself and shakes Corky’s hand, which minutes earlier had been inside Violet. Unable to resist a bit of juvenile humor, the Wachowskis have Pantoliano casually touch his face throughout the scene. But aside from presenting an opportunity for broad comedy, Caesar’s entrance signals a major shift in the film; he becomes the main character to drive the plot forward once it moves into its next phase.

The turning point is one of the most upsetting scenes of violence in any narrative film from the last 20 years. Caesar and his crew bring Shelly, who’s been stealing money from the family, back to the apartment to find out how he got away with it for so long. “I’m gonna ask you 10 questions,” says Mickey (John Ryan), placing the captive Shelly’s first finger between the blades of a pair of gardening shears. Johnny Marzzone (Christopher Meloni), the boss’s son, insists on just one final kick to the ribs after being told to quiet down before the screaming attracts attention. Having overheard this brutal undertaking, Violet decides she’s had enough and tries to leave. Caesar, of course, won’t allow it, so she and Corky, an ex-con, set to work devising a plan.

What follows is a tense caper that’s as brilliantly devised as Joel Coen and Ethan Coen’s Blood Simple. As in that film, different characters have different levels of understanding of what’s going on. Preying on Caesar’s enmity with Johnny, Violet makes him believe that the latter is setting him up. Caesar is safeguarding the stolen money until the big boss, Gino Marzzone (Richard C. Sarafian), comes to collect it; after Corky sneaks in to steal the loot, Violet makes Caesar believe that Johnny must have broken in and taken it, making Caesar the obvious culprit.

During the big showdown, Violet is the only one who knows the whole story. Caesar has been misled, and is working on faulty information, while Johnny, who’s genuinely confused by Caesar’s accusations, denies stealing the money, just as he would if he really had stolen it. It’s a clever setup, and the Wachowskis heighten the tension with vertiginous camera angles, careful timing and a judicious deployment of Don Davis’s brass-heavy score (which frequently resembles his score for The Matrix). Bound has two more major suspense sequences, and the stakes are raised with each one. By the end of the film, the viewer is left with chewed fingernails and ragged nerves.

Since The Matrix, which expands the already highly refined craft of Bound, the Wachowskis have not achieved at such a high level. Richard Brody, film critic for The New Yorker, recently wrote on Twitter, “If you think that someone’s first or second film in a long career is their best, you don’t really like their work. Artists grow.” Brody’s right, of course, that artists evolve, and that that is a good thing. It’s not my business to say what kind of films a director should be making, but I can’t help but feel that the Wachowskis are in an unfortunate group of promising filmmakers who emerged in the 1990s—including Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky—that have evolved in the wrong way. As the scale of the Wachowskis’ films increases, the coherence of their vision diminishes. The reason it’s so frustrating is that, from the beginning, they were always in control of their craft and possessed an innate sense of style. Brody’s statement works for filmmakers like Wes Anderson or the Coen brothers, who found their voices gradually. But with Andy and Lana Wachowski, the line separating their first two films from everything else is so clear that it’s beyond preference. Surely some will disagree; Cloud Atlas, which isn’t terrible, has its defenders. But I am merely one of leagues of deluded admirers who, against all odds, still hopes that this talented duo will one day recapture the magic of their early career.

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